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Weeding Out Psychopaths

Some employees can have toxic effects in the workplace. Careful hiring procedures can help organizations limit the damage.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016
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Psychopath >. The mere mention of the word conjures up images of an evil, menacing person. By definition, a < psychopath > is someone who's only in it for him or herself and who has an overwhelming compulsion to acquire power or riches (or both) with no regard for the feelings or well-being of others. Oftentimes, a < psychopath > even gains pleasure from harming others, either emotionally, financially, physically or otherwise.

While references to history's most famous psychopaths tend to focus on the most extreme cases, such as Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler and Ted Bundy, the vast majority of psychopaths live relatively normal lives and rarely, if ever, resort to violence to satisfy their own personal desires or greed. The label is frequently affixed to business leaders such as Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, Ponzi mastermind Bernie Madoff and Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, for example.

By no means are psychopaths limited to the C-suite. As in society at large, they exist throughout the workforce, at every level and in every industry and profession. But as volatility and uncertainty in the business environment grows -- a trend many experts predict will continue -- it's as crucial as ever for HR to keep psychopaths out of their workplaces. The case becomes even stronger if you factor in the potential of these individuals to inflict widespread, long-lasting damage on their organizations and co-workers.

The Workplace Attraction

Despite the aforementioned high-profile examples, just 1 percent of people meet the clinical criteria for psychopathy, according to Robert Hare, a researcher in the field of criminal psychology and developer of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a diagnostic tool used for the psychiatric evaluation of psychopathy. In their book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Hare and co-author Paul Babiak, a New York-based industrial and organizational psychologist, make the case that the prevalence of psychopaths is much higher in corporate America than among the general population, with estimates reaching as high as 4 percent for the executive ranks.

In 2010, Hare and Babiak partnered with Craig Neumann, professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Texas, to assess 203 professionals who had been identified as "high potentials." Through performance reviews, 360-degree feedback and interviews, they determined that 3.9 percent of these future leaders exhibited psychotic traits.

Hare and Babiak posit that psychopaths are increasingly common in business because they are attracted to the "pace and volatility of today's hypercompetitive workplaces." Meanwhile, Manfred Kets de Vries, distinguished clinical professor of leadership development and organizational change at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, says that psychopaths can be found wherever "power, status or money is at stake."

A greater concentration of psychopaths in the C-suite isn't all that surprising, according to A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla.

By definition, psychopaths are charismatic, intelligent, influential and risk-takers, says Marsden. Because these traits are considered desirable, and because the charm, persuasiveness and inflated sense of self are often misinterpreted as signs of a good leader, companies often place them in positions of power, she says. 

What sets a psychopathic leader apart is the way in which he or she manages or interact with people, says William Spangler, associate professor of management and organizational behavior at the School of Management, State University of New York at Binghamton.

"Psychopathic leaders are toxic individuals who manage subordinates [with] a combination of fear, threats, punishment and public humiliation," says Spangler. "They present a positive persona to their superiors and are often promoted for what is perceived to be their effectiveness, but they can [cause] great harm to the organization by destroying relationships, damaging work units and putting the entire company at risk for legal action."

By hiring a person who demonstrates these types of tendencies, "you are putting your other employees at risk for bullying and other abuse," adds Marsden. "The organization may end up losing many good employees [and] facing harassment suits against the < psychopath >. At higher levels of employment, psychopaths may engage in unethical and illegal behaviors, such as embezzlement, just to look successful."

Unfortunately, detecting an applicant's psychopathic tendencies is easier said than done. Psychopaths, by nature, are charming, engaging individuals who know how to say the right things to impress the person or people conducting the interview, says Spangler. They won't hesitate to lie or omit pertinent information and have no qualms about taking credit for other peoples' accomplishments. Fortunately, experts say, this smokescreen can be dissolved with a combination of strategic interviewing, reference checking and psychometric testing.

Circumventing the Charm Offensive

On the surface, psychopaths make extremely positive first impressions, which tend to color the interviewer's perception of them, even in the face of contradictory information, says Babiak. He calls this phenomenon "the halo effect," and cautions HR professionals and hiring managers to be wary of the "too good to be true candidate" and to realize what they see isn't necessarily what they are going to get.

"[Hiring managers] like what they hear and want to capitalize on the skills of the < psychopath >, but if you hire a true < psychopath >, you get the whole package," says Babiak. "In addition to the charm and charisma (which looks like leadership, but isn't), grandiose sense of self (which looks like confidence, but is a façade) and seemingly excellent communication skills (which looks like influencing skills, but is actually conning and manipulation), you get pathological lying, deceit, irresponsibility, lack of a conscience, lack of a moral compass and a host of other negative traits."

An obvious first step in ensuring psychopaths stay away from your workforce is to require an applicant to complete a comprehensive written employment application, stresses James McDonald, a labor and employment attorney and partner in the Los Angeles office of Fisher & Phillips. Asking a candidate if he or she has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, such as psychopathy, is illegal, McDonald says.

What is legal, however, is requesting job histories dating back at least four employers, asking applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime and requiring that they sign arbitration agreements. While most applicants will eagerly comply with such requests, psychopaths are likely to push back and question the need for such information.

"People who don't like following rules are going to push back when you ask them to fill out a comprehensive application," says McDonald. "They're going to argue with you: 'Why isn't my resume enough? Why do I have to do this?' Because they think they're special. They think they're beyond the rules."

Assuming applicants don't take themselves out of the running by refusing to provide the requested information, HR must then "dig deep" into the data contained on the resume and application, says Babiak, and be diligent about "checking details independent from the references offered."

Babiak stresses the importance of moving past a simple Google search and not relying on the candidate's Facebook or LinkedIn profile, as they can be populated with fabricated details. If something on the resume is found to be an outright lie, Babiak says, it's best to "take a pass on the candidate."

Should red flags emerge that might indicate a "slight distortion," he recommends pursuing the subject during the interview process. Hiring managers must be careful not to let the individual gloss over the question, but rather ask for specific details that will provide insight into their true nature and past accomplishments.

"Psychopaths are not good with details and tend to talk in generalities, using words that suggest a high level of strategic visioning perspective," says Babiak. "I'd cut through all that and get to the meat of what the [people actually have] accomplished and what real hands-on work they've performed. Most legitimate candidates can handle this line of questioning. Most psychopaths cannot."

Focusing on an applicant's past failures may prove particularly revealing if that person is harboring psychopathic tendencies, says Marsden. That's because psychopaths lack the ability to reflect on their past behavior and learn from their mistakes. In their eyes, she says, they have never failed, so they refuse to even acknowledge past failures.

"If they go into a long speech about how unfair their supervisor is or give answers like, 'They tell lies about me; they're not likely to give me a good reference because they discriminate against me,' that's a bad sign," says McDonald. "In their mind, any failings are not their fault; [they're] everyone else's fault."

Because psychopaths lack empathy and tend not to work well with others, questions that center on collaboration and teamwork can also be telling, says Marsden. Asked to describe interactions with colleagues and subordinates, psychopaths are often remarkably honest, even braggadocious about their sneaky ways. While you wouldn't ordinarily expect an applicant to admit to such behaviors, psychopaths "often enjoy intimidating and manipulating others, and because they do not necessarily see this as bad behavior, they have a tendency to brag about it," says Marsden.

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When asked what aspects of their current job they find most stressful, psychopaths are likely to cite things such as interpersonal relationships with customers or co-workers, or working as a member of a team, according to McDonald. They are also likely to have difficulty answering a direct question about how well they perform on a team.

"A person with anti-social traits is not going to do very well answering that question," says McDonald.

This makes it all the more imperative to talk directly to the applicant's immediate supervisor, rather than merely confirming dates of employment with HR, according to Manfred Kets de Vries, distinguished clinical professor of leadership development and organizational change at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He recommends asking about past successes and failures, and whether they functioned effectively as a member of a team, and then listening carefully to how the supervisor responds. Is he or she spontaneously enthusiastic or hesitant to answer?

Marsden recommends that interviewers focus on questions that center on the applicant's interactions with others, stressing the need to "read between the lines" and "listen for red flags that might expose instances of threats, bullying and intimidation."

Testing for Trouble

While psychometric tests such as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist are effective ways to measure psychopathic tendencies in a clinical setting, the test is not only unsuitable, it's illegal, says McDonald, as the Americans with Disabilities Act "prohibits the use of any kind of psychological testing in the hiring process that is designed to detect or diagnose mental illness."

That said, there are helpful tools that can be employed to assess a candidate's suitability for a job. While Marsden concedes that personality tests are "easy to fake," she believes helpful insights can be garnered from such assessments. Specifically, she recommends looking closely at an applicant's scores in areas related to aggressiveness, truthfulness and power motivation. 

Michael Mercer -- industrial psychologist and president of Barrington, Ill.-based Mercer Systems Inc. and author of Hire the Best and Avoid the Rest -- spent seven years developing Behavior Forecaster, a personality test designed to detect potential psychopathic tendencies among applicants.

"Psychopaths are very good at putting on a show, acting in a charming, delightful manner, and then the interviewer will give them a positive rating," says Mercer. "The test sees right through that. It doesn't see the applicant as charming or delightful. It tells you what the applicant is really like without the acting or the theater."

According to Mercer, Behavior Forecaster exposes applicants who are trying to answer dishonestly or inaccurately through the use of multiple "truism questions" throughout the online test. While declining to reveal specific questions, Mercer cites "Did you ever tell a lie?" as an example. An honest applicant will answer "yes," he says, while a "dishonest or devious applicant will try to outwit the test by giving answers that inaccurately or dishonestly portray him as better or different than he really is."

Spangler, meanwhile, is in the process of developing a content-analysis program that measures psychopathic and narcissistic traits in business leaders by picking up self-focused words such as "I," "me" or "mine," as well as language that is indicative of grandiose narcissism, such as those that indicate exaggeration and confidence. He's also working on a similar tool for identifying "measures of psychopathy" in stories written by applicants to describe a set of pictures. While he believes such tools are promising, Spangler says their development is "a long-term project."

Until testing becomes a routine tool, Mercer says, employers need to avoid getting caught in a < psychopath's web of self-aggrandizement and lies, and rely on a combination of strategic interviewing, reference checks and personality assessments to reveal their true nature. Even if they seem infinitely well-qualified in every other way, he says, it's best to pass on an applicant with psychopathic tendencies.

"You have to avoid getting charmed by an applicant and then forgiving any negative insights that come to light," says Mercer. "When it comes to psychopaths, there's always somebody better out there."

Read also:

Detoxifying the Workplace

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