Talented or Toxic: Why Employees Really ARE Like Mushrooms

Written by Kimberly MacArthur Graham on September 26, 2014

Who hasn’t heard (or issued) the old complaint, “They treat me like a mushroom. They keep me in the dark. . . “

Not sure my team knows, but I DO think of my them like mushrooms. But before you send me hate mail, let me explain.

First, I want to make it clear that I put a lot of value on terrific employees. As the owner of a small but growing business, I rely on every individual to perform well and maintain a positive, helpful attitude. I seek people that take pride in the company, our values, our clients, and in the quality of their own contribution.

Outside of work, I am dedicated mushroom forager. Wild fungi have earned my love and respect because they can be sublime, or “choice,” as the parlance goes — or they can be toxic.

Right now, it’s prime ‘shrooming season. It’s also a busy hiring time, so I’ve been struck by the similarities between the two quests. You see, I’ve hired a couple of toxic folks and I’ve nibbled a couple toxic plants. Not sure which is less pleasant, but neither are fun. And in all cases, I made a bad choice by short-cutting. To help you keep your workplace a choice environment, here’s my light-hearted – but ultimately, serious — guide to hiring talent that isn’t toxic.

  1. Know where to look. | Mushrooms, especially choice ones, have favorite habitats.  Same for talented people. For example, it’s unlikely you’ll find qualified P.E.s by posting an ad to the hardware store bulletin board. Quality people search quality sites such as LinkedIn, Monster, and a multiplicity of industry-specific boards. Be willing to pay a bit more for a very targeted listing. Some people like hiring based on personal referrals; some don’t. There are pros and cons to both but if it does not work out, you may have a more difficult time correcting behaviors or parting ways. Along these lines, be honest with yourself and the candidate about your office culture and environment and make sure they match up.
  2. Look closely and ask good questions. | Mushrooms like to hide, and in some cases, they like to masquerade. You have to look closely to locate them, then examine them even more rigorously (Spore prints, anyone?) before you eat them. Take a similarly hard look at any job candidate. Don’t be persuaded by resume alone because; remember that people can and often do, exaggerate their skills and experience. Do not “fill in the blanks” with what you want to see; look objectively at the person’s goals, character, experience, etc
  3. Verify, verify, verify. | Even mycologists (a.k.a., “mushroom gurus”) know you can’t be too careful when identifying fungi intended for dinner. Apply this cautious approach to hiring and hold at least two interviews. (We also hold a “group interview” where our entire team has a Q&A with the final 2 candidates. Remember that a bad fit will affect everyone.) Personally check 3 work-related references, asking questions that don’t have obvious “right” answers. Your goal here is to find out how well the potential candidate would fit into YOUR environment.
  4. Toss anything you’re not 100% sure about. | You’d be a fool to nibble an unfamiliar mushroom without positively identifying it; it could be a “vomiter” or worse. I collect and at any point, if there’s any doubt, I ditch it. Toxic employees may not kill you, but they most definitely have the ability to make life miserable. In my experience, every person I had doubts about unfortunately lived up to them.
  5. Respect choice talent and share it with others. | When I come across a group of choice mushrooms such as chanterelles or oysters, I experience a moment of awe and thanks. I often take photos of the site. I often feature them in a special dish and invite others to share in my good fortune. And that is just with fungi; I would hope that I treat my staff much better! I respect them, honor their contribution, and strive to create an environment that will allow them to shine – for our invited guests, our clients.

One final thought. You might think mushroom verification is too much work until you read about the Death Cap. Similarly, making a bad hire won’t kill you, but talented employees are a business’ most valuable brand asset – while we all know what those toxic folks bring to the table.

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