Can you spot a workplace psychopath from a resume and job references?

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.

Workplace bullying

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.

***

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5 responses

  1. I have been reading your blog since I quit a job in September of 2012 because of being bullied. In this post here, one of the highlighted references to psycopath work habits say that the psychopath tends to stay longer at the job, yet the introduction lists brief spotty employment as a red flag. I’m concerned about this due to having had 2 jobs since 2012 plus all of 2014 I spent building my own business. I may have to go back into the workforce and it terrifies me because after I left the job where I was bullied, the next job, though it seemed wonderful at first, downsized by over hiring so that those needing fulltime hours couldn’t get them because of all the new employees. My business is doing very well but now because the building I’m in is for sale, I have to leave, and it’s doubtful I will be able to rebuild the tenant improvements in a new space. So now my work history is spotty, but I’m not a psychopath, but I am the survivor of workplace bullying…
    I really feel crushed right now.
    Thank you for your posts. I learned about you from a woman in Bellingham Washington who works with assisting the victims of the bullying, though right at the moment her name escapes me. Your articles and your advocacy work are admire able and I have have found a lot of solace by reading them. Thank you.

    • Marca, thank you for your kind words. I’m sorry that your own experience is what brought you to this blog, but I am glad that it has been helpful to you.

      Yes, targets of workplace bullying can have a spotty work record too, especially if they have been out of the workforce due to their experiences at work or other circumstances. I guess that’s one of my points in taking issue with the article — there are plenty of valid reasons why a resume may not have a picture-perfect employment record.

      I understand your fears about going back to a more traditional work setting. For what it’s worth, I believe that bullying tends to be concentrated in a smaller number of workplaces — i.e., bad workplaces have a lot of it, but okay-to-good workplaces are much less likely hosts for bullying behaviors. Still, I also get why you chose to become an entrepreneur and have more control over your work experience. I hope you can find ways to preserve your business if that’s what you want to do.

      Take care,
      David

  2. Articles, such as Ms. Tuggle’s, come across as wanting to convey they can explain their target subject in ten paragraphs or less. And with such an enticing article title, how could anyone resist the chance to find out how to keep safe in the sea of disturbed potential employees?

    I can only hope one of her future articles might be about the employers who aren’t what they seem or try to convey. Just think of the diagnoses the readers will be encouraged to dodge.

    Complex issues deserve better.

  3. I am so grateful for you counter point on this. It seems especially troublesome that the criteria proposed for spotting the resume of a psychopath is how very many who are the targets of bullying would present the very same sort of gaps in employment with references that glowingly describe a candidate who would seem too wonderful to have had so many employment gaps and changes.

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