The nature of psychopaths in the workplace has been revealed by psychopathy expert Robert Hare and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak in a riveting read entitled Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. Here we look at some important lessons to be learnt from the book.
Publishing mogul Robert Maxwell rose from poverty to build an extensive empire, which collapsed after his death. His lavish lifestyle and his business had been supported with hundreds of millions of pounds from his employees’ pension funds, leaving thousands of them destitute.
He is just one example of the psychopath that lurks in the world of work – a person without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves. People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit and even violence to allow them to get what they want.
Robert Hare has devoted most of his academic career to the investigation of psychopathy, its nature, assessment, and implications for mental health and criminal justice. He is the author of several books, including Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, and more than 100 articles on psychopathy. He is the developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and is also a consultant to the FBI.
Paul Babiak is an industrial and organisational psychologist and president of HRBackOffice, an executive coaching and consulting firm specialising in management development and succession planning. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company.
Together, Hare and Babiak have extended the theory and research on psychopathy to the business and corporate world, developing tools to screen for psychopathic traits and behaviours.
In Snakes in Suits they explain how psychopaths manipulate their way into lucrative jobs and promotions, the effects of their presence on colleagues and companies, and the superficial similarities between leadership skills and psychopathic traits. Interlaced with a fictional narrative illustrating how the facts apply to real-life situations, it’s a fascinating and at times terrifying exploration of everyday psychopathy where it’s least expected – in the workplace.
So how do you spot the psycho among your work colleagues? The most reliable, widely used instrument for assessment is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). It rates a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. The symptoms include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimising others.
The Hare PCL-R covers two key aspects that help define the psychopath: selfish and unfeeling victimisation of other people, and an unstable and antisocial lifestyle. It scores 20 items that measure central elements of the psychopathic character:
- Glib and superficial charm
- Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
- Need for stimulation
- Pathological lying
- Cunning and manipulativeness
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
- Callousness and lack of empathy
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Poor behavioural controls
- Sexual promiscuity
- Early behaviour problems
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- Many short-term marital relationships
- Juvenile delinquency
- Revocation of conditional release
- Criminal versatility
When properly completed by a qualified professional, the PCL-R provides a score that indicates how closely the test subject matches the “perfect” score that a classic psychopath would rate. A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic tendencies would score zero.
Lurking Amonst Us
Less reassuring is Hare and Babiak’s estimate that 1% of a population – about 487 000 people in South Africa – are psychopaths. This number suggests that we are likely to come across at least one in the course of a typical day. Worse yet, they found that among high-potential executives psychopaths make up 3,5%.
Psychopaths are skilled individuals. According to Hare and Babiak, they have a talent for reading people and for sizing them up quickly. Smooth as silk, they identify a person’s likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots and vulnerabilities. They know exactly what buttons to push, and they’re always ready to push them.
Many seem to have excellent communication skills; they will jump right into a conversation without being held back by social inhibitions. They make up for lack of substance and sincerity by adopting a confident, aggressive delivery style. They believe they deserve whatever they can take and will use the information they glean against the person they are talking to.
They are also masters of impression management and will change personas to suit the situation.
“In the great card game of life,” say Hare and Babiak, “psychopaths know what cards you hold, and they cheat.”
Some will take advantage of almost anyone – from the secretary who runs the boss’s diary, to the CEO of the company.
Because they believe they are superior and that others exist to serve them, they believe that their victims deserve what they get. Typically, they begin by assessing their prey, manipulating them to get what they want, and then abandoning them once they are no longer useful.
Although they will work almost anywhere, psychopaths have a particular predilection for jobs in companies where they can take advantage of others, make a killing, and hide as well. This makes the world of the medium and large business most attractive. Hare and Babiak point out that it’s of great help to the psychopath that the corporate world, with its often questionable norms and behaviours, may well be the perfect hunting ground for the psychopath.
Like all predators, the authors maintain, the psychopath goes where the action is. They commit fraud, steal and abuse co-workers. But first, the initial challenge for any psychopath is to be hired.
Don’t Be Fooled
The face-to-face interview is where the psychopath has an advantage. Their ability to come across as smooth, talented, bright, ambitious, sensitive, self-confident and assertive enables them to present a compelling package to the business owner or department manager – after all, this is what every employer is looking for.
With so many people being hired on the basis of perceptions, the unsuspecting interviewer can quite easily fall for the psychopaths’ technique: their convincing communications style may lead the interviewer to believe that the candidate has leadership potential well beyond the knowledge, skills, and abilities listed on their CV. So skilled are psychopaths at the interview process, that it’s not unusual for them to be hired on the basis of their perceived future contribution to the company. As a result, they will often be hired in the belief that they are “better” than the job they are applying for.
Before You Employ
The hiring process aims to assess the qualifications of candidates and determine who will be best able to do the job. Hare and Babiak suggest following some strict rules.
1. Check the résumé. With the advent of the Internet, a job advertisement can lead to piles of résumés from interested candidates. Snakes in Suits warns against using the résumé as a screening device. It is common knowledge that many contain distortions or even outright lies. While many applicants tailor the information on the CV’s to position themselves more appropriately, the psychopath’s CV will likely contain fake degrees and diplomas, jobs the applicant never held and promotions that never happened. That’s why it’s essential that every piece of information contained in a CV be verified, from education to employment history, to professional memberships. Take nothing
2. The first screening interview. Candidates who make it to interview stage are expected to offer examples of work experience and skills that advance their candidacy. Psychopaths, however, will pick up what the interviewers need to hear and will begin to manipulate them accordingly. It’s almost impossible to differentiate them from legitimate candidates at this stage. Do watch out, however for flowery language, inconsistencies, distortions and bad logic.
3. The second screening interview. At this stage, regular applicants will really want to get the job; psychopaths will have a hidden agenda – they want the job so that they can take advantage of the company. And because psychopathy is not a mental illness, but a personality disorder, psychopaths will come across as particularly sane – not even exhibiting the insecurities and neuroses that plague the rest of us.
HR and key staff who conduct face-to-face interviews must be formally trained in interview techniques, and they must prepare for each interview. Draw up a list of questions and ensure you obtain an answers for every question on the list. Failing this, the psychopath will take control of the process.
4. Asking the right questions. A seasoned interviewer will begin by asking questions about the candidate’s background, experience, expertise and education, including a look at career moves. The interviewer will listen out for three levels of responses: the overt answer to the question, the impression the candidate is making, and the underlying competencies, motivations and values reflected by the overt answers. Hare and Babiak point out that many interviewers focus only on overt answers, and the impression the candidates make on them, rather than delving deeper into competencies, motivations and values.
Retain Control of the Interview
Psychopaths avoid answering questions directly and will introduce topics that are of interest to the interviewer to distract them. Because they are not daunted by the interview situation, they will be extremely convincing and know all the jargon. If pressed on a detail, they will simply change gear and divert the conversation.
Hare and Babiak offer these guidelines to prevent this from happening:
Stick to the interview plan
- Ask for work samples
- Focus on action and behaviour
- Clarify details
- Look for appropriate feelings
- Take notes
- Do not decide alone
- Know thyself
Lying is hard to detect so verify facts. Hare and Babiak caution that casual diagnosis of psychopathy is impossible for the layperson, but the first line of defence lies in hiring and selection.
Here are some examples of the type of overt questions to ask:
- What did the candidate really do in this job?
- What role did they play – supportive or leading?
- How did the candidate handle problems that came up?
- The answers to the following questions may reveal underlying competencies:
- Does the person communicate well in a somewhat stressful face-to-face situation?
- Did the candidate exhibit good judgement in the career choices they made?
- Did the candidate take on more responsibilities over time or did they just do the same thing over and over?
- Did the candidate demonstrate leadership, integrity and teamwork?