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 Do psychopaths exist in the workplace?

They’re usually seen as serial killers, rapists or sadists in Hollywood movies. They appear in the media and literature, but they’re never really expected to enter our real life. Although we’re not always aware of, they are actually closer than we think.

Research estimates that approximately only one percent of the general population are psychopaths. They are however, over represented in business, politics, law enforcement agencies, law firms, and the media according to research done by Dr. Robert Hare at the University of British Columbia, and his colleague Dr. Paul Babiak.

What is psychopathy? In psychiatry and clinical psychology, it is currently defined as a condition characterized by lack of empathy or conscience, poor impulse control or manipulative behaviours.

For most of us, the word “psychopath” itself seems like a loaded term, and overwhelmingly shocking to use for someone who might be our boss or a colleague in the next cubicle at work. But despite of the heavy terminology, I assure you, “psychopath” is the correct term for these people. Other terms used in the organizational context are, “industrial psychopaths”, “organizational psychopaths” or “corporate psychopaths”

A few years ago, questions were raised concerning a darker side to leadership. Remember the Enron scandal? Thousands of people were affected by the corporation’s CEO, Kenneth Lay’s decision to unload over a billion dollars of Enron stock between January 1999 and July 2001 while telling employees and investors to buy more despite the fact that the value of the company was shrinking. It’s an extreme example, but it gives you an idea how ruthless workplace psychopaths operate and manipulate in the executive business world.

So, how can we tell whether an individual is a workplace psychopath? Dr. John Clarke, PhD in Psychology and an expert in the criminal mind recently released a book called, “Working With Monsters: How to identify and protect yourself from the workplace psychopath”. He outlined some of the characteristics to look for in individuals who have psychopathic tendencies. According to Clarke you can spot the workplace psychopath by certain behaviour patterns and personality traits. If your answer is yes to more than half of the questions below, your assessment is probably right about the person that you have in mind:

1. Do they show no remorse no matter how much they victimize or backstab?

2. Is he or she a very good talker?

3. Do they prefer to operate one-on-one and will avoid group meetings?

4. Do they prey on people’s weaknesses, particularly low self esteem?

5. Are they opportunistic, ruthless, hating to lose and playing to win?

6. Do they take credit for other people’s work?

7. Do they consider people they’ve outsmarted or manipulated as dumb or stupid?

8. Do they show no regret for making decisions that negatively affect the company, shareholders, or employees?

According to Dr. Clarke, workplace psychopaths operate by making friends with someone high up who can protect them. They undermine their boss while at the same time being friendly towards them and work their way up the corporate ladder.

For those targeted by the psychopath, the consequences can be devastating, because they take away people’s confidence in their abilities and they take away their trust in other people.

These types of people are toxic in a work environment and toxic to co-workers. Therefore, knowing how to deal with it is very important. Read and educate yourself about workplace psychopaths. Incidents with workplace psychopaths need to be documented and discussed with HR.

References: ABC Radio National, “Psychopaths in suits” Human Resources [Australia]

Michele Majul, BA [Psych] is an HR Professional.


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