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Beware: Psychos at Work

People are a company’s greatest asset, but some may be its biggest threat.

Monique Verduyn




The nature of psychopaths in the workplace has been revealed by psychopathy expert Robert Hare and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak in a riveting read entitled Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. Here we look at some important lessons to be learnt from the book.

Publishing mogul Robert Maxwell rose from poverty to build an extensive empire, which collapsed after his death. His lavish lifestyle and his business had been supported with hundreds of millions of pounds from his employees’ pension funds, leaving thousands of them destitute.

He is just one example of the psychopath that lurks in the world of work – a person without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves. People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit and even violence to allow them to get what they want.

Robert Hare has devoted most of his academic career to the investigation of psychopathy, its nature, assessment, and implications for mental health and criminal justice. He is the author of several books, including Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, and more than 100 articles on psychopathy. He is the developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and is also a consultant to the FBI.

Paul Babiak is an industrial and organisational psychologist and president of HRBackOffice, an executive coaching and consulting firm specialising in management development and succession planning. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company.

Together, Hare and Babiak have extended the theory and research on psychopathy to the business and corporate world, developing tools to screen for psychopathic traits and behaviours.

In Snakes in Suits they explain how psychopaths manipulate their way into lucrative jobs and promotions, the effects of their presence on colleagues and companies, and the superficial similarities between leadership skills and psychopathic traits. Interlaced with a fictional narrative illustrating how the facts apply to real-life situations, it’s a fascinating and at times terrifying exploration of everyday psychopathy where it’s least expected – in the workplace.

Psychopathic Traits

So how do you spot the psycho among your work colleagues? The most reliable, widely used instrument for assessment is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). It rates a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. The symptoms include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimising others.

The Hare PCL-R covers two key aspects that help define the psychopath: selfish and unfeeling victimisation of other people, and an unstable and antisocial lifestyle. It scores 20 items that measure central elements of the psychopathic character:

  1. Glib and superficial charm
  2. Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  3. Need for stimulation
  4. Pathological lying
  5. Cunning and manipulativeness
  6. Lack of remorse or guilt
  7. Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  8. Callousness and lack of empathy
  9. Parasitic lifestyle
  10. Poor behavioural controls
  11. Sexual promiscuity
  12. Early behaviour problems
  13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
  14. Impulsivity
  15. Irresponsibility
  16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  17. Many short-term marital relationships
  18. Juvenile delinquency
  19. Revocation of conditional release
  20. Criminal versatility

When properly completed by a qualified professional, the PCL-R provides a score that indicates how closely the test subject matches the “perfect” score that a classic psychopath would rate. A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic tendencies would score zero.

Lurking Amonst Us

Less reassuring is Hare and Babiak’s estimate that 1% of a population – about 487 000 people in South Africa – are psychopaths. This number suggests that we are likely to come across at least one in the course of a typical day. Worse yet, they found that among high-potential executives psychopaths make up 3,5%.

Modus Operandi

Psychopaths are skilled individuals. According to Hare and Babiak, they have a talent for reading people and for sizing them up quickly. Smooth as silk, they identify a person’s likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots and vulnerabilities. They know exactly what buttons to push, and they’re always ready to push them.

Many seem to have excellent communication skills; they will jump right into a conversation without being held back by social inhibitions. They make up for lack of substance and sincerity by adopting a confident, aggressive delivery style. They believe they deserve whatever they can take and will use the information they glean against the person they are talking to.

They are also masters of impression management and will change personas to suit the situation.

“In the great card game of life,” say Hare and Babiak, “psychopaths know what cards you hold, and they cheat.”

Some will take advantage of almost anyone – from the secretary who runs the boss’s diary, to the CEO of the company.

Because they believe they are superior and that others exist to serve them, they believe that their victims deserve what they get. Typically, they begin by assessing their prey, manipulating them to get what they want, and then abandoning them once they are no longer useful.

Although they will work almost anywhere, psychopaths have a particular predilection for jobs in companies where they can take advantage of others, make a killing, and hide as well. This makes the world of the medium and large business most attractive. Hare and Babiak point out that it’s of great help to the psychopath that the corporate world, with its often questionable norms and behaviours, may well be the perfect hunting ground for the psychopath.

Like all predators, the authors maintain, the psychopath goes where the action is. They commit fraud, steal and abuse co-workers. But first, the initial challenge for any psychopath is to be hired.

Don’t Be Fooled

The face-to-face interview is where the psychopath has an advantage. Their ability to come across as smooth, talented, bright, ambitious, sensitive, self-confident and assertive enables them to present a compelling package to the business owner or department manager – after all, this is what every employer is looking for.

With so many people being hired on the basis of perceptions, the unsuspecting interviewer can quite easily fall for the psychopaths’ technique: their convincing communications style may lead the interviewer to believe that the candidate has leadership potential well beyond the knowledge, skills, and abilities listed on their CV. So skilled are psychopaths at the interview process, that it’s not unusual for them to be hired on the basis of their perceived future contribution to the company. As a result, they will often be hired in the belief that they are “better” than the job they are applying for.

Before You Employ

The hiring process aims to assess the qualifications of candidates and determine who will be best able to do the job. Hare and Babiak suggest following some strict rules.

1. Check the résumé. With the advent of the Internet, a job advertisement can lead to piles of résumés from interested candidates. Snakes in Suits warns against using the résumé as a screening device. It is common knowledge that many contain distortions or even outright lies. While many applicants tailor the information on the CV’s to position themselves more appropriately, the psychopath’s CV will likely contain fake degrees and diplomas, jobs the applicant never held and promotions that never happened. That’s why it’s essential that every piece of information contained in a CV be verified, from education to employment history, to professional memberships. Take nothing
for granted.

2. The first screening interview. Candidates who make it to interview stage are expected to offer examples of work experience and skills that advance their candidacy. Psychopaths, however, will pick up what the interviewers need to hear and will begin to manipulate them accordingly. It’s almost impossible to differentiate them from legitimate candidates at this stage. Do watch out, however for flowery language, inconsistencies, distortions and bad logic.

3. The second screening interview. At this stage, regular applicants will really want to get the job; psychopaths will have a hidden agenda – they want the job so that they can take advantage of the company. And because psychopathy is not a mental illness, but a personality disorder, psychopaths will come across as particularly sane – not even exhibiting the insecurities and neuroses that plague the rest of us.

HR and key staff who conduct face-to-face interviews must be formally trained in interview techniques, and they must prepare for each interview. Draw up a list of questions and ensure you obtain an answers for every question on the list. Failing this, the psychopath will take control of the process.

4. Asking the right questions. A seasoned interviewer will begin by asking questions about the candidate’s background, experience, expertise and education, including a look at career moves. The interviewer will listen out for three levels of responses: the overt answer to the question, the impression the candidate is making, and the underlying competencies, motivations and values reflected by the overt answers. Hare and Babiak point out that many interviewers focus only on overt answers, and the impression the candidates make on them, rather than delving deeper into competencies, motivations and values.

Retain Control of the Interview

Psychopaths avoid answering questions directly and will introduce topics that are of interest to the interviewer to distract them. Because they are not daunted by the interview situation, they will be extremely convincing and know all the jargon. If pressed on a detail, they will simply change gear and divert the conversation.

Hare and Babiak offer these guidelines to prevent this from happening:

Stick to the interview plan

  • Ask for work samples
  • Focus on action and behaviour
  • Clarify details
  • Look for appropriate feelings
  • Take notes
  • Do not decide alone
  • Know thyself

Lying is hard to detect so verify facts. Hare and Babiak caution that casual diagnosis of psychopathy is impossible for the layperson, but the first line of defence lies in hiring and selection.

Here are some examples of the type of overt questions to ask:

  • What did the candidate really do in this job?
  • What role did they play – supportive or leading?
  • How did the candidate handle problems that came up?
  • The answers to the following questions may reveal underlying competencies:
  • Does the person communicate well in a somewhat stressful face-to-face situation?
  • Did the candidate exhibit good judgement in the career choices they made?
  • Did the candidate take on more responsibilities over time or did they just do the same thing over and over?
  • Did the candidate demonstrate leadership, integrity and teamwork?

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

Managing Staff

How To Build Better Employee Engagement

Here are my 10 tips for managers wishing to build real engagement.

Dr John Demartini




Everything begins with values; with the top three highest priorities in an individual’s life. These are the source of that person’s primary purpose and the underlying determinants of their perceptions, decisions and behaviours.

In the context of managers wanting to help their teams to develop mindsets geared towards connection, conversation and experimentation, within a healthy environment, the process must begin with value determination.

Advice for managers

Here are my 10 tips for managers wishing to build real engagement:

  1. Write down the job duties that your people actually have: Their current, accurate, and most up-to-date daily action steps.
  2. Spend some time determining what their values are. You can use the free online tool on my website –
  3. Once you have determined your highest values (the three things that are most important to you in your life, where you demonstrate your greatest discipline, reliability, focus and productivity), you’ll need to find the links between employees’ job duties (Step 1) and their highest values. This is a very specific and detailed step, unpacked below.
  4. The question to ask is, “How specifically will performing this particular job duty help me to fulfill my current top three values?”


Let’s say one of your team members is a payroll administrator. Her job duties might include: checking how many hours employees have worked; calculating and issuing pay; deducting tax and other benefits; processing leave and expenses; calculating overtime; answering staff queries; and giving advice.

Let’s presume one of her top three highest-order values is her children. The way to connect what she does with what she values is to ask questions like these, in order to make links and help her see them in context:

  • Does working with numbers help you teach your children to pay attention to detail?
  • Does making calculations help you help your children with homework?
  • Does knowing the art of fair exchange give you a lesson to teach your children?
  • By doing your work, are you earning the income you need to fund your children’s education?
  • If it’s tedious work but you don’t give up, is that good role modelling for your children?
  • Does knowing about money management, and sharing this with your colleagues, help them to help their own children?
  • Does advising others make you better at giving your children counsel?

Related: Why Conflict Resolution Is A Matter Of Matching Values

  1. The magic number to shoot for is 20 links, not seven. Once you get to 20, for some reason, it ‘clicks’ and people can see that what they do every day is (or can be) valuable and meaningful. Be aware that some links are harder to find than others. Some are obvious; some, more tenuous.
  2. Look for fluency. If the employee hesitates or can’t answer the question easily or at all, this is a sign that the job duty is incongruent with their highest values and they are not going to be inspired about that particular duty. (In this case, keep asking them how that specific duty would or could help them to fulfil their highest values, until they can see a connection.)
  3. This is a big job. Value determination and link creation can take a whole day or more, the first time you do it, depending on the size of your team.
  4. To create better connections between your people, use the same process to cross-link others’ three highest values with your three highest values. Go through the entire team, making a list of values across everyone you manage. Look at the common threads. This will help you achieve more equitable leadership, better management and healthier relationships.
  5. For better work conversations, remember that dialogue comes from equal values (or else you simply have alternating monologue). Employees must know each other’s values. You, the manager, must master the skill of communicating your high-priority intentions, expectations and delegations in terms of each employee’s top three values.
  6. Intrinsically, people love solving problems that align with their values, so fulfilling their values will give them the courage to experiment.

Remember: People go to work every day to fulfill themselves, not for the sake of a company. For this reason, managers must enable their people to explicitly connect their own values with their everyday, real-world job duties, so that they become engaged, feel grateful for their collegial support system, and are inspired to go beyond the call of duty and to innovate.

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Managing Staff

6 Ways To Break Bad News To Your Team

We asked six leaders: How did you handle sharing the hardest news of your career?





Being the bearer of bad news is never fun. But there comes a time in everyone’s lives, when they’ve got to step up to the plate. This is especially true in business. When you’re in a leadership position at a company, knowing how to deliver bad news is a crucial skill. To help you out, we asked six leaders for their advice on delivering bad news to teams.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. With a promise

“After the economic meltdown of 2008, we couldn’t afford to keep everyone on staff. Picking who stays and who goes is one of the most difficult decisions you have to make as CEO. I delivered the news with honesty and empathy at an all-hands meeting. We gave some severance, referral to an employment service and a personal reference. We also gave the option to rejoin our team once things were back on track, and some did! It was a homecoming of sorts, a healing moment.” – Ori Eisen, founder and CEO, Trusona 

2. With support

“In 2016, our office manager passed away. She was only 26. We called a mandatory meeting, let everyone know, and brought in grief counselors. The hardest part was controlling my own emotions in front of the company. This was a crucial moment, and the team needed a leader. We organised a memorial service to celebrate her life. It took time for the business to return to a normal cadence, but her impact remains at the company today.” – Rahul Gandhi, co-founder and CEO, MakeSpace

Related: 22 Qualities That Make A Great Leader

3. With transparency

“In New York, construction delays are as common as yellow taxis. But when you’re working to open a new restaurant location and have promoted staff to run it, construction delays don’t impact just revenue but your team’s livelihood as well. Delaying promotions for people who have worked hard to earn them is tough news to deliver. But we invited the team to the construction site to see the space and ask questions, and it helped everyone get on the same page.” – Otto Cedeno, founder, Otto’s Tacos

4. With community

“The worst news my husband and I had to share with our employees, and kids, was that we’d decided to move our business from New York to Los Angeles. We gave employees the option to stay with us and relocate. Some came west, and others did not. We couldn’t guarantee that those who moved with us would love L.A., but we promised to figure it out together.” – Cortney Novogratz, co-founder, The Novogratz

5. With a plan

“One of my first experiences as an entrepreneur was running a restaurant, which I closed as a result of 2008’s downturn. I knew this was going to be life-changing for my team. We did everything we could to ease the disruption, and I leveraged my network to place laid-off employees in new positions – nearly 90 percent had jobs in just a few weeks. As a business owner, failure is hard, but it’s an opportunity to prove yourself as a leader.” – Michael Wystrach, co-founder and CEO, Freshly 

Related: 15 Of South Africa’s Business Leaders’ Best Advice For Your Business

6. With reason

“After I joined Interactions as CEO, my team and I identified significant roadblocks in our product development. We had been on an aggressive growth track, but it was clear we needed to right the ship. I told my board and team that we were shutting down sales to double down on R&D. Hitting pause was an incredibly hard decision, but it was necessary to ensure we were providing the best product and experience for our customers.” – Mike Iacobucci, CEO, Interactions

This article was originally posted here on

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Managing Staff

Why Small Businesses Are Unable To Pay Staff Salaries

Let’s look at it from a different angle and see if we’ll arrive at that same conclusion.

Matthew Mordi




We’ve heard countless times the constant conflict between employers and employees over non-payment of salaries. Small business owners complain employees don’t understand what they have to go through to ensure the payment of staff salaries.

The moment they’re unable to meet up with the payment of staff salaries, workers accuse them of being wasteful when business was booming. So the age old story of members of staff not being understanding comes up again. The cost of running the business which includes maintenance of machinery, rents, paying off loans; all these and much more which sums up overhead cost.

While it’s true that overhead cost is usually the main challenge of small businesses, it’s true only in part. Let’s look at it from a different angle and see if we’ll arrive at that same conclusion.

Usually a lot of small business owners don’t save for the rainy day, neither do they invest income generated by the business for the benefit of the business. Personal savings and investment isn’t the same with that of the business. Small business owners tend to save and invest income generated by the business in their personal names.

Related: Start-Up Law:  I’m A Start-up Founder. Can I Pay Employees With Shares?

Let’s look at this scenario:

Mr A. is the owner of a grocery shop. People are patronising the business. Business is booming, everything seems perfect. At this point there is usually no problem paying salaries and overhead. This is the tricky part, what the employer does with the income the business is generating at this point apart from ploughing the money back into the business will decide whether he’ll be able to pay salaries when business is slow.

One would expect the owner of the store to not only save but also invest some of the income made by the business.

This is usually not the case because it’s at this point of booming business and perceived excess cash that the owner remembers he’ll pay himself more than he usually does (and that is if he pays himself salary), needs to move to a bigger apartment or better still, buy a bigger car.

The moment there is downturn in sales as a result low patronage, the problem of payment of staff salary begins. Mr A. makes it clear to his employees that the business isn’t turning in a profit and he’s using his personal money to pay staff salary. Therefore, he can’t keep on doing it and he’ll have to owe salaries.

This could have been avoided.

Do diligent – don’t dilly dally

What happened to the excess profit of years before? It’s obvious the employer hadn’t been diligent with the funds. Instead of investing the money to ensure it generates further income for the benefit of the business for the rainy day, the employer would instead use the profit for his own personal benefit.

If Mr A. had saved the money and income generated by his grocery store in preparation for the rainy day, the company wouldn’t be caught up in the quagmire it was put in.

A business is a separate entity from the founder, whether it’s a small or a large corporation they should stay so; separate. I’m not talking about the technicalities of whether it’s a company or business name. We have to realise that in order for the business to not only survive but also succeed, it must be separate from the owner.

This is one aspect small businesses must learn from large corporations with sound financial plan. There are times these corporations declare losses, yet they’re able to pay salaries! Money made by the business should be for the business. It’s not the time to buy that new car. If employers work with the mindset of paying themselves salaries (not excessive), it would go a long way to ensure the business is afloat even during uncertain economic times.

Related: How To Structure A Fair Salary That Will Motivate Your Sales Team

In fairness, some employers who own small businesses have been exceptional in this regard. However, the fact is, majority of small business owners don’t function with this mindset. Businesses, just like it obtains in our personal lives, have their ups and downs. The things you do or don’t do during the ups are equally as important as what you do during the downs. Save, save and save. You can’t go wrong with this. Invest, invest and invest. You can’t go wrong with this either.

That profit isn’t for spending; at least not yet. Invest the money like you would do with yours. Invest it in the name of the business. Let your business own shares in other businesses. This is sound business practice.

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