How to avoid hiring the psychopath in a suit
CQUniversity Associate Professor and MBA Director Michael Segon says it is not always easy to spot the "corporate psychopath" in the interview process.
They seemed perfect for the job - everything that you were looking for - confident, decisive, a very skilled communicator, they had done their homework about the company and you and your fellow interviewees, and you thought that they would be an asset to you and the firm.
Soon after their appointment you started noticing projects being taken over by the new manager, most involving significant travel or absences from the office.
Within the first year several problems started to emerge. Several long-standing clients decided to cease their relationship with your organisations citing problems and a drop in service levels.
The new manager was mostly upbeat but more recently had advised the executive group that all was not well in the department - they cited lack of willingness to change, several employees were named as major disrupting factors - that processes were not being followed and that these problems had been “papered over” by the previous manager.
Long-term employees started complaining, just as the managers had predicted, and some had commenced grievance and contacted the union.
The worst is still to come. You have appointed a corporate psychopath.
Who or what are Corporate Psychopaths?
Psychopathy has generally been studied from a psychological perspective examining the stereotypical offenders we associate with these people.
However, American psychiatrist Babiak (2004) began to notice that many of these characteristics were also displayed by people in everyday situations - business, government, sporting and social groups- without the violence that true psychopaths exhibit, yet often with similar destructive outcomes. Babiak suggests that organisations can also be havens for “the corporate psychopath or the psychopaths in a suit”
The corporate psychopaths that Babiak studied were well educated, all went to university, some had PhDs and most came from comfortable backgrounds.
Their ruthless pursuit of self-interest was more easily accomplished in the white-collar realm, which their backgrounds had groomed them for, rather than the criminal one, which has far greater dangers (Deutschman, 2005).
Characteristics of Corporate Psychopaths
Corporate psychopaths are extremely skilled with many of the attributes that are associated with effective managers and leaders: effective verbal communicators- they can be extremely charming and they are extremely good actors and actresses.
However, they tend to be insincere, arrogant, untrustworthy, manipulative, and insensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others. They are remorseless, shallow and incapable of experiencing or understanding the feelings of others.
They blame others for things that go wrong, have low frustration tolerance and is therefore impatient with things. They are erratic, unreliable, unfocused, and is selfish, parasitic, they take advantage of the goodwill of people they work with as well as the company itself.
Two key characteristics are the absence of empathy and a moral compass.
Babiak and Hare (2006) suggest three basic characteristics that identify psychopath in corporate contexts:
1. Physiological drive for stimulation, characterised by impulsive behaviour, primarily driven by thrill seeking;
2. A need, or desire to engage in political game playing with people as objects to be used- with a view to winning; and,
3. They are immune to the damage they do and at some level might find it stimulating
The Failure of Process
The skillful nature of corporate psychopaths does not mean they are impossible to spot and importantly, avoid.
Following good HR screening practices will identify potential “red flags” or warning signs:
o Incomplete CVs and resumes.
o Frequent job changes, typically every 18-24 months.
o Regular gaps in employment.
o Failure to use recent employers as referees.
o Undertake a background check.
During the Interview:
o Tend to claim credit for organisational success.
o Tend not to acknowledge deficiencies or need for development.
o Make claims about being able to generate successful change.
o Claims are often inconsistent or seem to have no basis for fact based on their CV.
Should your practices be less than effective and you actually appoint one of these people, then typically they will begin to scope the landscape with a view to:
• Identifying potential allies that will do some of the dirty work and provide needed “visible” support
• Identify easy and vulnerable employees to set up as scapegoats and as targets often as a means of intimidating others
• Ingratiate themselves to senior managers
• Prepare senior managers for the “problems” lack of willingness to change” the extent of the previously unknown problems etc.
• Prepare their strategies to gain as much as possible without detection and some plan an exit before detection
Unfortunately the damage caused by these individuals tends to be extensive. Getting rid of them is extremely important, but organisations often do next tend to compound the problem.
Having recognised the errors of appointment and typically supporting the psychopath for anywhere between 12-18 months, many senior executives prefer to simply forget about the experience and expect people to do the same.
There is often a fear of possible litigation either from the psychopath themselves who may use unfair dismissal laws or civil action as a way of limiting information about their performance, or from aggrieved employees who’s rights were often infringed, and the organisations typically not acknowledging these issues during the corporate psychopath’s tenure.
Regrettably the victims of the corporate psychopaths are often ignored and in some cases are seems as part of the problem, particularly those who may complaints or took formal action through processes such as grievance procedures.
It is important to remember that the culture will have been fractured - often employees who unwittingly, or in some cases knowingly aided and abetted the psychopaths will still be in the organisation.
We must remember that managers, leaders and organisations have a duty of care and a responsibility to provide a safe work environment.
Acknowledging mistakes is an important part of the process of learning - by ignoring these failings, corporate memory will be lost, managers will come and go and ultimately we will simply repeat the mistakes of the past.
Join Michael Segon as CCIQ and CQUniversity host a webinar tomorrow (June 10) on how to avoid the corporate psychopath.