How to Avoid Hiring a Psychopath

Mainstream media viewers are intrigued with violent psychopathy in the form of Dexter, Criminal Minds and, before those, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We also see real life scenarios play out on TV daily, but what we don’t often see is the nonviolent damage that such people inflict in the corporate world, costing us billions and destroying many a career along the way.

Since corporate structures frequently resemble silos, predatory behavior is rarely exposed or out in the open. That makes calling out and defending against psychopathic behavior difficult. The key is to avoid hiring such people in the first place.

Roughly one in every hundred people are psychopaths, making it a statistical probability that we will come into proximity with one sometime during the average day. And that could be during a job interview for your company. 

Contrary to our mental image, psychopaths don't look the part: They wear Louboutin heels, Gucci loafers or expensive suits. They drive normal cars. Many of them actually interview well because they are socially manipulative and are driven by wealth and power, which can come across as appropriate professional ambition to the untrained eye.

There are several behavior patterns that can tip you to a psychopath during the hiring process: 

Identify psychopathic patterns.

Psychopaths differ from the average person primarily because they don’t feel emotions in the same way (or at all, in some cases). This inhibits sincere empathy while facilitating antisocial behavior and overconfidence, and creating a lack of emotional awareness. Most of us aren’t qualified to identify one, but you won’t have an expert beside you when interviewing. However, it helps to understand the basics about psychopaths.

Listen to the way candidates describe their coworkers, supervisors and junior employees. Are those people described as humans who achieved things and overcame obstacles, or as cogs in a machine? Psychopaths follow a behavioral pattern in corporate environments, one comprised of assessment, manipulation and abandonment. Making people “useful” for their own advancement is how psychopaths interact with others. Since they don’t tend to make genuine emotional connections, the absence of a human angle in a candidate’s descriptive narrative should raise a flag.

Look for a personal plan, or lack thereof.

Psychopaths aren’t life planners. Lacking clear goals is another key indicator to seek. Psychopaths tend to live without a plan, and you might be able to spot one by looking at the candidate’s work history. This should not become a screening mechanism, of course; people with unique and varied backgrounds bring some of the greatest insights to our workplaces. But if a candidate can’t make a believable narrative out of an irregular work history, then cock an ear for more other clues.

Psychopaths also tend to concern themselves with immediate needs rather than high-level concepts such as spirituality, emotional growth or work-life balance. It probably wouldn’t occur to a psychopath to strive for inward fulfillment, or make sense to them that for anyone else would do so. Take note of such absences when learning about someone’s drive and professional relationships.

Listen for substantially different stories.

Since psychopaths manipulate people individually, examine how candidates interact with different interviewers throughout the hiring process. Without screening anyone for microscopic discrepancies, create a cohesive narrative among everyone interviewing the candidate. Psychopaths blend into different social situations naturally, yet have been found to possess lower-than-average IQs overall.

Paying close attention to the details each interviewer was told should highlight serious discrepancies. Look for substantially different variations of the same workplace stories: Inconsistency and deception won’t survive scrutiny, no matter how charming the person may be. Removing the “silo” structure in which psychopaths thrive will go a long way toward keeping them out of your organization.

Listen to language. 

Remembering that psychopaths focus on the lower end of the "hierarchy of needs" (survival, hunger, daily finances, etc.), keep an ear out for basic language that might reflect that mindset. Also listen for short-sighted answers when the conversation turns toward open-ended topics, such as personal drive, long-term goals, incentive plans and reasons why the candidate wants to work in your organization. 

It has been reported that psychopaths tend to speak in a “cause-and-effect” framework and use stalling language more often (“um,” “uh”). It’s a subtle way of identifying psychopathic minds, and so should probably be reserved as one of the last tools to do so. Most of us use similar language to give ourselves time to think -- don’t go overboard with it! 

Embrace technology, not your gut.

On the surface, corporate psychopaths usually have a good resume and have climbed their way to the top. What you don’t see is the wake left in their path: ruined careers of colleagues and damaged businesses. Instead of falling prey to their charms, focus on hard facts and tools. Always do thorough background checks, talk to previous employers and consider utilizing tools that delve deeper into the candidate’s reputation than just a basic criminal and credit check.

A variety of machine learning tools are entering the market, such as Trust Science, that measure a variety of sociometric factors that make up trustworthiness, including ability, benevolence, reputation, credibility and integrity. They research public records, sentiment, transactional and legal history, in addition to a myriad of other things like social relationships and psychometric factors. All this data rolled up makes it challenging for even the most cunning of psychopaths to get past your hiring process.

If you feel you might be on to something consult an expert, and remember that excluding psychopaths ultimately serves to protect you, your business and the people who work with you.

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Debby Carreau

Recognized for the past three years as one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women™, Debby Carreau is a proven leader, helping businesses deliver superior results by making better decisions about human capital. As CEO and Founder of Ins...

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