Mitchell Langbert

HR Strategies on Workplace Psychopaths

How to track psychopaths and make sure they don’t join your workforce.

July 23, 2009
by Mitchell Langbert, PhD

Dr. Paul Babiak is president of HRBackOffice and co-author with Dr. Robert D. Hare of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, an important book about psychopaths in the workplace. Within the last ten years, two series of scandals have wracked American industry. In 2001, Enron, Arthur Andersen and a familiar, contemporaneous litany led to passage of the Sarbanes Oxley Act. Only seven years later Wall Street has been immersed in wave of derivatives-related failures. Although the scandals and failures have several causes, ethical lapses that may be addressed through improved human resource management play a role.

I interviewed Dr. Babiak via telephone at his upstate New York office.

ML: Dr. Babiak, how do you define the term psychopath?

Babiak: When one first meets psychopaths they are likeable, verbally fluent and charming. They easily build rapport and people trust them. But, underneath this façade, they’re manipulative liars. They can create multiple masks or personas that they use to maintain relationships with their victims. They are opportunistic, parasitic predators. Their opportunism has a number of motivations: money, sex and power, for example.

Bob Hare has identified two factors. Factor one, called Interpersonal-Affective, involves traits like superficial charm, glibness and lack of remorse, while factor two, Antisocial Lifestyle, includes behaviors like irresponsibility and bullying. The psychopaths most prevalent in the corporate world are likely to be strong on factor one but somewhat moderate on factor two.

ML: Could you call them con artists?

Babiak: Most psychopaths are cons, while “con artists” are not necessarily psychopaths; it’s more of a career choice. Because psychopathy is a personality disorder, with conning and lack of conscience as core traits, it is important to determine if the “con artist” has a conscience.

ML: How do you contrast anti-social personality from psychopathy?

Babiak: People with anti-social personalities are not necessarily psychopathic, although many psychopaths exhibit anti-social behavior. Psychopaths lack conscience, while anti-social personalities can sometimes feel remorse.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (the standard psychiatric reference that uses multiple dimensions or axes to characterize mental health disorders), anti-social personality is often associated with criminal behavior, while true psychopaths need not be overt criminals. In fact, the so-called “successful psychopath” can elude the law for a very long time.

ML: Can integrity tests that are sometimes used in staffing uncover a psychopathic job applicant?

Babiak: Psychopaths weave pictures of themselves as ideal leaders, including “integrity.” They suck up to those above them and abuse those below them. One of the real threats that psychopaths pose is that they know how to seem trustworthy and people tend to follow anyone whom they believe is trustworthy. Psychopaths in leadership positions also create an atmosphere of distrust among followers by discouraging interaction and sharing. They set up situations in which A can’t talk to B who can’t talk to C. This leads to lowered morale, productivity and communication.

Because psychopaths have no loyalty to the firm, they have no qualms about “killing” their host, i.e., the corporate employer or their boss. Yet, not all want to get to the top. It’s the power game that they enjoy, so manipulating someone higher up in the company — by pretending to be loyal and possessing integrity — can provide them all the challenge and “game playing” that they need.

Most integrity tests are not designed to uncover psychopathy. Many are based on admission of minor crimes, but psychopaths are good at lying and enjoy “psyching out” standard personality tests. You need a more creative instrument. The B-Scan (the psychological test on which Drs. Babiak and Hare are working) is not yet commercially available, but it may be by next year.

ML: What can human resource (HR) departments do to ferret out applicants who are psychopaths?

Babiak: Due diligence is critical. Check résumés carefully. Check references. Get information from current or past employers. Also, informal inquiries of former colleagues at professional meetings can be an effective way to uncover the truth.

To identify potential psychopaths multiple structured interviews should be used and their answers to specific questions compared across interviewers. (Structured interviews are interviews in which the interviewers ask focused questions of each applicant.) An applicant who gives completely different answers based on the position or personality of the interviewer should raise a red flag as psychopaths change interpersonal style easily.

Psychopaths talk down to lower-level employees and can be rude to people whom they believe to be low status. So interview processes should include at least one or more low-level employees in separate interviews. The lower-level interviewers should be asked about the applicant’s tone and personality. An applicant who “sucks up” to the highest-level interviewer but is rude to the lowest level may be a psychopath.

Monitoring systems should also be established and they need not be complicated. A few additions to existing performance appraisal methods will go a long way. Employee suggestion programs and anonymous tip lines can be invaluable in identifying employees who repeatedly lie and exhibit psychopathic traits. As well, companies should encourage open-door policies.

ML: Would you say that organization structures that encourage frequent communication as opposed to heavily departmentalized organizations would reduce opportunities for psychopaths to act out?

Babiak: Yes. Organizational structures that encourage communication limit psychopaths’ success. Like vampires, psychopaths don’t do well in sunlight.

ML: What about training?

Babiak: Much like sexual harassment training, there is a need for training supervisors about psychopathic behavior patterns.

ML: In my undergraduate and MBA teaching I emphasize the importance of impression management and interpersonal skills. To what extent am I inadvertently encouraging psychopathic behavior?

Babiak: Good management skills can look like psychopathic behavior. The difference is motivation and degree. If you give someone a friendly “hello” in order to improve your relationship with them that is not psychopathic, but a psychopath will give the friendly “hello” in order to manipulate or harm the other person. Also, education about ethics is important and should be integrated into the discussion of managerial skills.

ML: Back in the ’50s, Douglas MacGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he claimed that Theory Y managers, who trust their employees, are better than Theory X managers who consider their employees to be lazy, to require financial incentives and not trustworthy. Does the presence of psychopaths mean that Theory Y is flawed?

Babiak: Theory Y is useful for the right kind of employee. However, managers need to be aware that not all of their employees are the same — understanding individual differences are essential to deciding whom you should trust and who you shouldn’t. Monitoring performance is indispensible.

ML: Thank you, Dr. Babiak. You are serving corporate America rich food for thought.

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Mitchell Langbert, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Brooklyn College. Widely published on the subject of human resource management, Langbert has consulted and served as an expert witness.