Why Corporate Sociopaths are Harmful to an Office and How to Avoid Hiring One

Doug Horn on October 3, 2014 10:47:00 AM EDT


If you’re lucky, you’ll have never encountered a sociopath in either your personal or professional lifetime. Odds are, however, that you have, and if you’re reading this, you can likely pinpoint exactly who it was.

Can’t think of one? Hmm. Do you lack moral responsibility or social conscience? How about guilt, remorse, or empathy? Do you frequently make reservations at Dorsia? Yikes. It might be you.

In either case, your classical notion of a sociopath, or as you may know it, a “psychopath,” is probably some sort of serial killer with the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles. This concept has merit, as 15% of the prison population is shown to have sociopathic tendencies, compared to just 1% of the general population. Yet there is another type of sociopath whom you have probably encountered much more frequently than your Buffalo Bill types: the corporate sociopath. While the sociopath who worms his way into a position of power in a business setting shares certain personality traits with his more criminally-inclined counterpart, corporate sociopaths are an entirely different animal. Being designated a sociopath in the business world doesn’t necessarily mean one is going to commit any crimes, but rather describes one who is not empathetic and tends to be socially aggressive.

In the business world, 3.9% of the population exhibits sociopathic tendencies. These SOBs, or Seductive Operational Bullies, thrive in organizational settings where money and status enter the equation, and often work their ways up to positions of power.



Why Sociopaths Can be So Damaging to an Organization

Putting a corporate sociopath in a position of influence is extremely dangerous, as it can have devastating effects on team morale and interoffice relationships. Work is a game to the corporate sociopath, and if they have to distort office politics in order to accomplish their goals, so be it.

One of the critical things to know about SOBs is that the ends always justify the means. They do not care how they arrive at the top of the ladder, so long as they get there. They could push people around, lie, cheat, charm, swindle, bully…it doesn’t matter as long as they get their way. 35% of the American workforce has directly experienced bullying, and approximately 72% of the time, those bullies are the bosses.

Since corporate sociopaths are likely to work their way into managerial positions, those that they oversee are in danger of being corrupted or damaged by their sphere of influence. Important concepts such as morale, emotional investment, engagement, and productivity among workers can all be indelibly harmed if one’s boss is threatening, intimidating, or manipulative. Stress in the workplace skyrockets with the specter of the sociopath in the corner office looming over every desk. This means when an SOB manages even a small team, employees will not perform to the best of their abilities, and business will suffer.


How to Avoid Hiring a Sociopath

Keeping all the above information in mind, you should do everything in your power to keep corporate sociopaths out of your organization. Unfortunately, you’re not going to ask a prospective employee if they’re a sociopath in an interview, and if you do, SOBs are likely going to lie. It’s in their nature.

That being said, you can look for telltale signs of the corporate sociopath during an interview or, if you accidentally hire one, during the onboarding process. For example, if you find that the person is unctuous or overly fawning to high-ranking members of your company, but patronizing to more junior members, that should be a red flag. SOBs will use manipulation of their superiors to get what they want, and if lower-ranking coworkers can’t help them, they may act condescendingly towards them.

If you find that a candidate has a history of aggression or intimidation, you should consider that a warning sign as well. Behavioral questioning and referrals from people who have worked with them should help you in these situations.

Ultimately, you want to make the best hires possible. You might feel rushed to do this sometimes, but that does not mean you should make the wrong hire just because you have an opening that you need filled. As Richard Branson once wrote, “It’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole in your team.”