Do you employ corporate psychopaths …? Five ways to protect your business


Closeup Businessman Holding Knife Behind His Back conceptualWe tend to recognise a psychopath as sensational murderers such as Hitler, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson or even the more recent Joanna Denehey; but do we ever stop to consider that right now in our workplace we might share our coffee breaks with people who could potentially be just as psychopathic?

Experts in the field, such as Cleckley, Hare, Babiak and Boddy have increasingly pointed to evidence that around 1% of the general population is psychopathic, but clearly not all are murderers.  Many are socially adept and fully able to have seemingly gainful employment.  Further, it’s believed that among senior staff and CEO’s the percentage is higher, and if the organisation is reputationally attractive, earning potential is high and the culture favours the macho, then the possibility of tripping over the corporate psychopath is much higher still.

Identified by their complete lack of empathy, lack of moral judgement, desire to succeed at all and any cost in their singular aims, who are good at using others for gain, breaking people who stand in their way and charming those they need to influence, they are a destructive force in any business.

Strangely, some people believe that the traits that so define a psychopath can be harnessed for the good of the business in which they work.  Really?  The fact that a psychopath feels no loyalty except to himself (and yes most are male) means that they will destroy whatever stands in their way in pursuit of the goal they seek; not just turn their psychopathy outwards, for instance toward competitors in pursuit of competitive advantage.  Deliberately hiring a psychopath might be more akin to playing a game of Russian roulette – never knowing when the bullet will come, but come it will… Organisations like Enron, WorldCom, The Mirror Group Pension Fund, and Barings Bank all suffered the ultimate effects of Corporate Psychopaths.

Promotion, money, recognition.  A potent and attractive mix for those who crave attention;  so how can we ensure that we have our eyes wide open to ensuring we hire, promote and trust those who will benefit our businesses rather than bring them down?

Corporate Psychopaths are inherently charming, knowing what to say, and when.  They appear unflappable and in control when all around them is in chaos (often of their own making) they deflect blame on to the innocent, present others’ ideas as their own, will manipulate, lie and cheat, and yet if you are the one they are aiming to influence, they will appear to be the solution to all your business problems.

So on that basis you probably won’t suspect you have a Corporate Psychopath in your midst, in fact you will more likely view them as your key business player and best friend.  Too clever to be easily found out you won’t spot them easily, but the signs will be there and good business practices can highlight when things aren’t all that they seem – if you are willing to look. So what should you do?

  1. Your business culture – align your business values with a sense of common decency and ethical practice and embed it in all that you do.  This will give you a backbone against which you can measure all employees’ behaviours and enable you to have an environment where people can challenge what they see going wrong.
  2. Hiring practices – the standard job interview is notoriously flawed as a hiring tool on its own, so ensure you have rigorous checks and balances in place. Speak to people who have worked with your potential hire, check validity of qualifications, gain several people’s viewpoint as to the candidate’s suitability, be rigorous and searching with your questions, use skilled interviewers, check the validity of the CV history, explore gaps, promotions, job moves, listen to any nagging doubts.
  3. Employee feedback – Whilst they might charm you, a Corporate Psychopath will be making life unreasonably difficult for others.  Employee surveys can reveal where there are stand-out issues behind which a bullying boss might lie. Enabling people to respond confidentially will likely give you a truer picture of what’s going on.  The important thing is to listen and investigate independently before leaping to the same deflecting explanations that your psychopath might give you.
  4. 360 feedback – similar to the above, use rounded performance feedback from subordinates, peers, bosses and even customers and suppliers as part of your performance management toolkit. Are viewpoints unreasonably divergent and yet consistent?
  5. Too good to be true – an old adage but can equally apply in the workplace. Whilst all around is chaos does one person keep standing out as the solution?  Do they encourage high risks for welcome gain when business sense points in the other direction? Do they have all the answers when around them colleagues and staff appear ineffectual by comparison? Do they stand alone in their ‘achievements’ but substance is lacking? Are they always at hand with the right word in your ear?

If the doubts or questions are there, look at your business and financial metrics, make comparisons over time, look at other employee indicators such as turnover, absence and exit reasons, and start questioning.  If things don’t ‘stack up’ you have identified your problem.