In a piece for Mainstreet.com, Kathryn Tuggle suggests that we can identify potential psychopaths from their resumes and job references:
They may seem normal, diligent and affable, but when it comes to new employees remember that crazy can fool you for a little while. Keep an eye out for these red flags, or you could end up hiring a psychopath . . .
Drawing from interviews with a clinical psychologist and an executive recruiter, the piece identifies supposed telltale indicators:
- Instability as evidenced by many positions over a short period of time;
- Unexplained chronological gaps in employment histories; and,
- References who go over the top in describing how “charming” the candidate happens to be.
True, chronic instability, dishonesty and deception, and superficial charm are potential signs of psychopathy and other personality disorders. However, there may be other more innocent explanations behind the indicators identified in the article: Younger workers are more likely to move between employers on a frequent basis. Employment chronologies may look especially spotty in a difficult economy and job market. And some people may be truly charming without being the next Ted Bundy.
A more likely (and disturbing) scenario: The “almost psychopath”
I submit that much of the worst damage to the emotional well-being of workers is done by “almost psychopaths,” a term suggested by Dr. Ronald Schouten and attorney James Silver. Almost psychopaths are smart, ruthless, calculating, and have staying power. As some loyal readers know, I have embraced the Schouten/Silver concept of the almost psychopath and written about it on several occasions. Here’s a snippet from a previous blog post:
Ronald Schouten (M.D./J.D.), a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, and James Silver (J.D.), an attorney specializing in criminal law, have co-authored a fascinating new book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). . . . The authors describe psychopathy as a “major abnormality” marked by a lack of empathy and behaviors that are “inappropriately deceitful, aggressive, and indifferent to the rights or feelings of others.” . . . Schouten and Silver have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, but there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, which they describe this way:
Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.
. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.
Their benchmark for making these assessments is the well-known psychopathy checklist developed by Dr. Robert Hare.
“Almost psychopaths” often are adept at navigating the institutions and place settings of everyday life. They also are more prevalent in our society than full-blown psychopaths. Whereas clinical psychopathy covers roughly one percent of the population, Schouten and Silver estimate that some 10-15 percent of the populace might be classified as almost psychopaths. And given survey data suggesting that those harboring psychopathic traits are more likely than others to ascend to leadership positions (there’s the superficial charm kicking in), it’s fair to assert that a lot of managers and executives fit into this category.
In a presentation that Dr. Schouten gave at a New Workplace Institute event two years ago, he applied the almost psychopath framework to workplace bullying. Here’s a partial summary of his remarks:
The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates. Almost psychopaths often are fueled by workplace cultures that enable bullying behaviors. Schouten emphasized that this cultural component is often passed down within an organization. It’s possible that interventions could reduce some of these problematic traits in order to improve relationships in the workplace.
Over the years, I have become familiar with hundreds of reported workplace bullying situations. In many of the worst instances, the chief aggressor fits the almost psychopath profile. Rather than frequently switching jobs, almost psychopaths manage to stay and accumulate influence and power, which they leverage to treat people abusively.
Although I wish that identifying individuals of this nature was as easy as a resume and reference check, in reality it’s a lot more difficult than that. On occasion almost psychopaths are identified and dispatched, but often not before they have done a lot of damage to individuals and organizations.
Free blog subscription
For a free subscription to Minding the Workplace, go to “Follow this blog” at the top right of the home page, and enter your e-mail address.