How to Avoid Hiring a Psychopath

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Fish eye shot of screaming insane man in strait-jacket Now let’s be clear, the candidate job market is in no way scourged by a plague of psychopaths. Studies such as the one, titled Corporate psychopathy: talking the walk,has revealed that just 1 percent of the general population qualify as a psychopath to a greater or lesser extent, compared to 15 percent in prison populations.

But, what may be of potential interest to hiring managers and recruiters was that 3 percent of those that they assessed within a management development program appeared to have psychopathic tendencies, meaning they scored within the psychopathic range. An Insead paper suggests that the prevalence of corporate psychopathy within firms is at 3.9 percent.

This means that there is a much higher incidence or likelihood of psychopathy within the leadership population; which, therefore, takes on a much higher significance, due to the ‘one to many‘ impact and influence of a leader. Take one psychopathic senior leader, in your small-to-medium-sized business of 100 staff, who manages 30 staff. They could do significant damage to morale, engagement and productivity in your business.

In the Insead White Paper, The Psychopath in the C Suite: Redefining the SOB,they introduce the concept of a corporate psychopath ‘lite,’ which they term an SOB or Seductive Operational Bully (now you thought it stood for ‘Son of a…. ‘didn’t you?). SOBs are not prison fodder, but their psychopathic tendencies mean they can thrive in organizational settings. The researchers suggest that SOBs are drawn to situations where power, money or status is at stake (your management or leadership vacancy naturally).

SOBs can appear outwardly normal and charming but have a lack of inner empathy, shame, guilt or remorse, which has significant interpersonal repercussions and can destroy team morale or entire organizations if they get high enough. And because psychopaths do also exhibit many of the traits needed to get to the top such as: impression management, gamesmanship, risk taking, domination, competitiveness and assertiveness, SOBs make it under to the radar and often climb to the top, hence the high incidence of them. The Insead reports suggests that some organizations may be designed in a way that means they are a natural home for psychopaths.

Clearly, one of the main ways to reduce corporate psychopathy is to prevent them from getting into the organization and into positions of power within your firm and below I have set out some signs that you may be interviewing a Seductive Operational Bully or psychopath (lite), who you may want to avoid.

  • If a candidate is servile and fawning to a senior figure (perhaps the interviewer or some figure in their past) but perhaps condescending to some one of lower status (a junior interviewer or colleague in their past), watch out. According to the Kets de Vries the Insead professor, this is exactly the sort of behavior you expect to see in a SOB.
  • Look for signs of SOB behavior in their past, such as intimidation, threatening behavior, hostility and manipulation, through behavioral questioning. Kets de Vries recommends multiple interviews as SOBs can cover their tracks and different interviewers can uncover different and possibly contradictory answers.
  • Other signs are appearing glib and charming, being self centered, lacking in empathy, and being able to lie easily. If you find that they exhibit just a few of these signs you might be interviewing a psychopath.
  • Kets also suggest that psychopaths shine in situations that require tough and unpopular decisions, such as laying off staff.

Look out for part two of this article: “What To Do If You Have Unwittingly Hired a Psychopath.”

By Kazim Ladimeji