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 whenthey 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.

Scott J. Shea is the proprietor of Job Sink, offering career advice and exploring employment issues and workplace difficulties faced by those on the autism spectrum.

Spotting Psychopaths in the Workplace, the first in a series of four, appears here by permission.

[image via Available Images]

on 06/30/11 in Politics | 20 Comments | Read More

Comments (20)


  1. All media is directed at me. You’re talking to me, right?

  2. mik says:

    You’ve just described most of the managers I’ve ever had !

    Most of these companies have been in tech, with a thinner than average clueless layer, but a deeper sociopath layer, fighting for the bonuses and stock options:


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