Psychopaths at work: how to protect yourself from the hidden cost

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Corporate psychopaths cost the economy billions of dollars not only through fraud and other crimes but through the personal and organisational damage they leave behind as they climb the corporate ladder, writes Benedict Sheehy.
From psychological thrillers to true crime stories, people who depart from social norms can be deeply fascinating. Psychopaths most of all.

Working with or for a psychopath, however, is less fun.

The research generally agrees about 1 per cent of the population is psychopathic. This means they fail to develop the normal range of emotions, lack empathy for others and are more disposed to antisocial and uninhibited behaviour.

Among prisoners, the percentage with psychopathic traits has been estimated at 15 per cent to 20 per cent. But psychopaths are also disproportionately represented in corporate culture. Among the higher echelons of large organisations, the psychopathy rate is an estimated 3.5 per cent. Some estimates for chief executives go way higher.

Only in recent decades has the research on psychopathy started reflecting the enormity of the social and economic cost of non-criminal corporate psychopaths.

My research (with Clive Boddy and Brendon Murphy) suggests corporate psychopaths cost the economy billions of dollars not only through fraud and other crimes but through the personal and organisational damage they leave behind as they climb the corporate ladder.

Psychopaths have a natural advantage in any superficial recruitment process. ( Flickr: Kompania Piwowarska )

Worming their way in

Psychopaths typically lack empathy and remorse. They are self-centred, manipulative, unemotional, deceitful, insincere and self-aggrandising.

But they are also fearless and confident, which helps them present as potentially resourceful employees and gain employment.

A classic example is "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap, who in the early 1990s was celebrated as a hard-nosed but effective corporate "streamliner", turning around company fortunes by retrenching staff.…
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