Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

A shout-out to our workplace anti-bullying work

Great literature may help us to understand trauma

Great literature may help us to understand psychological trauma. In a newly published essay (link here), “Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry,” I summon Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Homer’s The Odyssey for that purpose. Drawing upon Moby-Dick, I consider the injured Captain Ahab as a workplace trauma sufferer and abusive boss. Examining The Odyssey, I see Odysseus experiencing grief and exhaustion as he tries to return home after 10 years of fighting a war.

The piece has just been posted to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, a fully online university devoted to Great Books and Great Ideas, where I am a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas.” In this side-gig role, I am contributing writings to HMU’s publications and taking part in various discussion groups.

Presentation: “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace”

Earlier this year, I gave a virtual presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” for the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” The recording has been posted to YouTube (link here). I use the first 18-19 minutes to cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, and then I discuss these behaviors in academic work settings. My prepared remarks run for about 44 minutes in all, followed by Q&A and comments for another 25 minutes.

Relevant Earlier Posts

  • Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (2017) (link here);
  • UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative (2013) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009; rev. 2014) (link here).

Internships (paid and unpaid) are back in the news

A welcomed, if long overdue announcement from the White House and an excellent New York Times article have brought important questions about unpaid internships back into the spotlight.

Last week, the Biden Administration issued a statement (link here) announcing that, starting this fall, its interns no longer will have to work for free. This is the first time in the history of this coveted opportunity that interns will be paid, thus opening the door to highly qualified applicants who come from modest financial means. Said the White House:

Too often, unpaid federal internships have been a barrier to hardworking and talented students and professionals, preventing them from contributing their talents and skills to the country and holding them back from federal career advancement opportunities. This significant milestone of paying White House interns will help remove barriers to equal opportunity for low-income students and first-generation professionals at the beginnings of their careers and help to ensure that those who receive internships at the White House—and who will be a significant part of the leadership pipeline across the entire federal government—reflect the diversity of America.

On the heels of the White House announcement comes “Why We Still Haven’t Solved the Unpaid Internship Problem” (link here), a very informative and wide-ranging piece on the barriers posed by unpaid internships, authored by Times personal finance writer Ron Lieber. He draws upon his own experience back in the 1990s to illustrate the key issue:

Millions of college students work for money each summer because they need it and their financial aid office tells them to go earn some. Then there are those White House interns from previous administrations — often white, sometimes rich and, by summer’s end, presumably very well connected — buffing their résumés.

Is the problem evident? It first clicked in for me in the early 1990s when my interview for a summer internship at Chicago magazine was going well until I found out that I’d be working for free.

When I started asking questions — what was a financial aid recipient like me supposed to do to make enough to afford school, and isn’t this all a form of classism? — the tenor of the meeting took a turn. I didn’t get the offer.

Paying tuition to work for free

Lieber asked me to comment on the exploitative practice of colleges and universities offering academic credit for internships in return for paying tuition:

Then there’s the glaring issue of schools that offer course credit for internships.

Schools benefit from this arrangement in two ways, said David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert on the rules around internships. First, intern-for-credit programs can allow institutions to collect tuition for that credit, even as students are working out in the world and don’t need classroom space or an instructor standing in front of it for four months.

Then, it allows a school to say it’s providing valuable career preparation. “If I hear another university invoke the phrase ‘Hit the ground running,’ I think I’m going to scream,” he said.

Previous work

I have written often on this blog about the intern economy, especially during a period several years ago, when the issue was getting lots of media attention due to lawsuits invoking minimum wage laws to challenge the widespread practice of unpaid internships. Those legal challenges yielded some disappointing court decisions but kept open the possibility of future lawsuits. They also served a valuable consciousness-raising function that caused some employers to reconsider their internship programs and begin paying their interns.

But the overall topic has faded from public view since then. I hope that the White House pronouncement and Ron Lieber’s article will help to remedy that and prompt a resurgence of attention.

I have written several law review articles examining the legal and policy implications of unpaid internships. You may freely access pdfs of those pieces:

  • “‘Mass Exploitation Hidden in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work,” Idaho Law Review (2016) (link here) — Shorter piece emerging from a symposium of emerging employment law issues held at the University of Idaho College of Law.
  • “The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid Internships,” Northeastern University Law Journal (2016) (link here) — Comprehensive overview and assessment of many major legal, policy, and advocacy developments concerning unpaid internships during a critical period between 2010 and 2016.
  • “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” Connecticut Law Review (2002) (link here) — Foundational article that helped to inform legal challenges to unpaid internships.

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Update: I was interviewed by KCBS news radio in San Francisco about the recent White House announcement that it will begin paying its interns. You may listen to that brief interview here.

 

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