As I frequently tell my audiences, one of the most encouraging findings with respect to workplace bullying is the evidence that establishes the effectiveness of coaching in shifting the behaviour of  individuals who routinely engage in disrespectful, power based behaviours. The exception, I point out, would be that a small percentage of individuals, 1% within the general population, who can be classified as psychopaths; individuals who are incapable of changing their behaviour because they lack empathy and feel no remorse or guilt, regardless of what they say or do.

Until recently, I assumed that we would find that same small percentage reflected in our workplaces. Apparently I was wrong.  According to research by Dr. Robert Hare, the Canadian psychologist who co-authored Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work, the likelihood of finding a psychopath in your senior leadership team is 4 times higher than within the general population.

It seems that contemporary corporate culture, particularly within the financial services industry, provides the ideal environment for psychopaths; excessively narcissistic individuals who mimic rather than feel emotions, who lie, cheat, steal or harm with no feeling of remorse. Psychopaths are manipulative risk takers, knowing when and how to turn on the charm to get what they want, without caring who or what they destroy to get it.

The reason there is a much higher likelihood of finding them in the C-Suite is because they are drawn to position and power. They seek out situations that will provide them unfettered access to both. Unfortunately, far too many corporate cultures are structured to ensure their psychopathic desires are fulfilled.

They are welcomed into a workplace cleverly disguised as the “turnaround” guy. Charismatic and confident, they boast of moving from one company to another, hired to cut costs, trim the excesses, dispose of waste while getting  paid big bucks to do so. The damage and destruction they cause to corporate culture, morale, teamwork, employee health and turnover are rarely reflected in what gets captured in bottom line results.

According to British researcher Clive Boddy, author of the book “Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers”, the 2007-2008 financial crisis may have resulted in the growing proliferation of psychopathic personalities in the C suite. “Psychopaths are great bullies. They are cunning and manipulative, and great at engineering situations. Although they don’t have emotions themselves, they can create emotional situations. The rest of us don’t even realize we’re being manipulated until it’s too late.”

Corporate psychopaths never stay in one company long enough to get caught, particularly as no one is really looking to catch them. Their lack of empathy, “tough love” managerial style  and interest in risk taking are often viewed as the kinds of traits that will provide that  competitive edge so many of today’s companies are seeking. Typical of those who engage in bullying behaviour, they are able to charm and manipulate those whose support they need, as they steal credit for the accomplishments of others who they coldly blame them for any problems or issues that arise during their brief tenure.

According to Paul Babiak, a New York industrial psychologist and co-author  with Dr. Hare of  “Snakes in Suits”, todays turbulent and challenging economic reality is creating “golden times for cold, career opportunists like psychopaths.”  In addition to the people costs listed above he has been documenting for over 16 years, Babiak is concerned about a new danger to companies who allow these individuals to infiltrate their ranks.

Corporate crime is on the rise. A November 2011 report by Price, Waterhouse Coopers shows a 13% increase in global economic crime since its 2009 world survey, with an average cost per company of $5 million. And most of the crimes are inside jobs: 56% of companies say the offenders were employees.

To ensure that you avoid the destructive and costly outcomes that result from in advertently hiring or harbouring a psychopath make sure to:

  1. Develop a list of values based leadership competencies and ensure that every leader is hired and evaluated on the basis of those competencies.
  2. Have rigorous and thorough hiring practices that mirror those routinely used by Employers of Choice and described in Chapter 5  in Road to Respect (Respectful Hiring). Structure multiple interviews with a host of different individuals, including those that the new leader will be supervising. Include questions or scenario based exercises that will allow you to assess the moral and ethical behaviors of prospective incumbents. Be rigorous in your reference checks, particularly if the individual has been moving from one company to another. Don’t just speak to someone in HR. Speak to individuals that worked directly with and for the prospective incumbent.
  3. Build relationships across organizational power lines. The most effective way to expose a psychopath, or a leader who engages in power based bullying behaviour is through intentional relationship development. Every leader should know that his/her behavior will be assessed and evaluated by those that report to him/her, as well as those in other departments with whom they interact. A flatter organizational structure with a myriad of respectful cross hierarchical, cross functional and cross departmental relationships will ensure that bad behaviour has nowhere to hide.

We are currently witnessing just what psychopaths are capable of in the tragedy unfolding in Syria. Structures that allow for concentration of power encourage its abuse. Now is the time to take proactive steps to ensure that your workplace is truly values based. Hold leaders accountable to demonstrate their power respectfully. Make sure that psychopathy is not the path to success in your workplace.