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Psychopaths in the workplace – what they look like and how to weed them out

Is your colleague or boss simply difficult or could you be working alongside a psychopath?

When we talk about psychopaths, our first thoughts might jump to those who engage in criminal activity or otherwise live on the fringes of society; however, while research indicates that one in five prison inmates are considered psychopathic, it is becoming increasingly common to encounter surprisingly high numbers of psychopaths in our everyday lives.

With one forensic psychologist suggesting that between 3% and 21% of those in the ‘upper echelons of the corporate world’ are considered psychopathic, we could be working alongside or be managed by a psychopath every day in our professional roles.

Psychopathic behaviour is generally considered to be a mental disorder in which someone lacks empathy to the point that they are callous in their uncaring approach to others, which is why many criminals are categorised as such.

A psychopath may also be shallow, egocentric, insincere and distinctly lacking in moral fibre; in extreme cases, they can become violent or emotionally abusive to those around them. Since they are cunning and superficial, they are often able to disguise their character and charm their way into senior roles.

These behavioural traits are deplorable in any walk of life, which is why having a psychopathic colleague or boss can make your working life extremely difficult. Experts recognise this and are calling for changes in the recruitment process in an attempt to lower the numbers of so-called ‘successful psychopaths’ in the workplace.

Rather than prioritising a candidate’s skill set in an interview, experts believe that personality should be the first thing to be scrutinised. Opting for those with a good overall character will ultimately be of more benefit to the workplace, as a psychopathic boss may create a toxic atmosphere or engage in illegal or immoral practices that may lead a company into disrepute.

Prototypes of personality screening tools are being rolled out in corporate sectors to help interviewers eliminate those with undesirable and potentially psychopathic personality traits. This might be particular useful for weeding out this type of behaviour in sectors prone to attracting psychopaths, such as law-based jobs, CEO positions, journalism and other media professions, and – worryingly – authority positions such as police officers, clergymen and surgeons.

With research indicating that 21% of 261 corporate professionals surveyed demonstrated significant levels of clinically psychopathic personality traits – a figure comparable to that reflected in prison populations – it seems that many of these people are already at large in the workplace.

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