Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Spotting Psychopaths in the workplace.

One of my favorite books is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: A Novel. There is a chapter that starts out talking about how a complete stranger is the only person to spot that an antagonist is an inhuman monster. When asked how he knew which of the antagonist's eyes was fake he responded "It was the only one with a glimmer of human compassion in it". If only it were so easy in the working world.

Psychopaths, sociopaths, Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), whatever you want to call it, people like that can do well in the workplace. Someone like this is able to chameleon themselves into appearing like a strong leader, an achiever, a results oriented person and sometimes everyone's best friend... well, best friend to everyone above them. In reality they weave a series of lies and collateral damage into a time-bomb that goes off after they leave.

One time I worked with a woman who showed all the tendencies of a business psychopath. Treated the people below her like crap, lied even when it suited no purpose, back-stabbed people (I was the first victim) left and right all with the appearance of getting results. Her lies were so blatantly obvious that I thought anyone would see through them. Her biggest whopper was that she had sold a company to Microsoft, made millions and did not need to work. Aside from there being no record of the transaction on Microsoft's legally required disclosures, her car was fifteen years old and barely worked; her 'work' outfits were not exactly Bloomingdale's and when doing business with Microsoft at our company she could not produce the name of one person there who knew her. Still, people loved her. After she killed my professional advancement in that company I switched to another department with my complaints falling on deaf ears. I was in the wrong and just jealous of her.

A year later I did have a little satisfaction when one of the people who told me I was off my rocker came back and apologized saying that they had no idea she was like that. This was after she torpedoed them at another company both had moved to with fanfare.

I began to notice I had a particular antipathy towards people like this. I think part of it is because psychopaths are likely to target people on the ASD spectrum as easy prey. We are usually held as less trustworthy to begin with due to our social issues and have a problem with confrontation. Also with our difficulty in thinking strategically we can be dismissed as 'missing the big picture'. I tend to clash often and fervently with business psychopaths and narcissistic workers alike. They are very similar.

This is not a scientific study but my mental checklist for determining if someone is at least a possible business psychopath; it certainly should not take the place of Hare's checklist and proper study. Instead use it to know if you need to put special guard up. Here are the characteristics that I have seen cluster around these people:

  1. The lies and often grandiose lies (one guy told a tale of helping France revamp their postal system even though he had never been to France, does not speak French, knew nothing about letter/parcel delivery and France seems like they would do this on their own; not contact a guy in Los Angeles)
  2. When challenged, especially on trustworthiness, makes dismissive attacks on the person challenging them.
  3. Treats people 'below them' (subjective) very poorly even when there is no cause-- even a flimsy cause
  4. Delights and brags about cruel behavior to others; especially animals, children, women etc.
  5. If male, can be a major philanderer... not like one affair but several; often at the same time
  6. Claims they are a big picture, leader or other buzzword of the day for someone who is an executive of a fortune 100 company when they are not
  7. Uses business buzzwords a lot; often to disguise their lies or to appear like they are in the know
  8. Makes moves every year or two (a sign their BS is catching up to them)
Like I said, this is certainly not a scientific list and can get you in to trouble if you based hiring decisions or work interactions solely on it. Instead it provides a framework to be concerned and to start looking at protecting yourself.


  1. Oh my goodness... years ago, I was working for a company (undiagnosed at that time with Asperger's... I'm a woman and we are often diagnosed later in life), and a new hire felt slighted by me. He developed an immediate antipathy to me. While I'd never complained about fellow co-workers (my boss told me that I had a problem in liking everyone), I went to my boss about this guy's reaction to my simply doing my job as requested.

    Because I tend to "act like" a man in regard to leadership style and threaten men who are insecure, my boss assumed it was my issue and that the other guy would come around in due time like everyone else (I was well respected). At any rate, we had a team building exercise among the top ranking staff and for about one hour at the end we were paired with just one person. I was paired with this guy. He positioned himself with his back to the others, spoke in quiet friendly tones, and read me the riot act (all born out of his indignity at my being who I was and being asked to do what I did for the company). He proceeded to tell me he'd get me fired even though I was the owner's "lucky rabbit foot" of sorts.

    I knew at that point that I had to keep my mouth shut, hope that I would keep my job, and also hope that he would show his true self eventually.

    Then, at a business dinner meeting one night where the boss wasn't there, someone at the table joked with me about a strange interest of mine, and this guy used it as an opening to try to publicly humiliate me. I calmly sat there and when he was through said I needed to get some fresh air. He demonstrated how friendly and good natured the exchange was by volunteering to drive me to my hotel.

    The next day while driving alone with the owner to the airport (and determined as ever to keep my mouth shut about this guy), my boss said, "I heard what happened at the dinner table. It wasn't you. He's been pulling this with other people. He's even been trying to coerce me," using what he thought was his superior knowledge about the business to get what he wanted. I'm looking for his replacement beginning tomorrow.

    I mean, here I am a valued and trusted employee who never complains about a fellow employee, but I can't be believed because (1) no one wants to admit that they've made a mistake in hiring and (2) I have Asperger's (or maybe because I was a threatening woman).

  2. That is rough putting up with the sort of behavior so I am glad you kept at it. It sounds like you have a good sense of self. I am also happy that they eventually saw through it.

  3. I have worked under a legitimate psychopath. She was in a high position of power over people (VP, Human Resources). it was sickening to see the way he enjoyed firing, reprimanding and demeaning employees. She would over-exaggerate emotions and it left everyone in the conversation feeling awkward. She wore sexually provocative clothing to work (extremely inappropriate) and often openly flirted with other remembers of the executive team. It was all very weird. She single handedly destroyed the company culture. She lied and anyone who either called her out or she felt saw through here, were fired. It's really a horrible situation when one runs into this type of person.

  4. There are some of us who just want to attend doctors visits weekly and live a moral life. I see that society would rather treat us as animals, and lock us in cages. If that's your empathy, then perhaps I don't feel so bad about myself. Generalizations are never fair.