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ASC 2013: How to Keep a Psychopath Out of Your Workplace

Nov. 7, 2013
It's easier said than done, of course. But there are red flags that can give an employer insight into an applicant's propensity for bad behavior.

If one in 100 men and one in 300 women are psychopaths, as some experts estimate, how do they get into the workplace?

The answer is simple: "We hire our problems," risk-management consultant Steve Davis asserted at the 2013 America's Safest Companies Conference in Atlanta. "We actually put them on the payroll and pay them to come to work, without properly screening them and without understanding what the risks are."

Regardless of whether or not an individual has psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies (or suffers from some other personality disorder or mental illness), when a worker engages in violence or other bad behavior, the human and financial costs can be steep.

"It's cheaper and better to keep people out of the workplace than allowing them in," said forensic psychologist Harley Stock.

Easier said than done, of course. A true background check – one that delves deeply into a person's personal and professional past – can cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to security consultant Mike Canaan, president of Kent, Wash.-based Trident Investigative Service Inc.

"We can only make a reasonable effort to do what we need to do for the position we're hiring for," Canaan told EHS Today. In many cases, that effort takes the form of a pre-employment screening, in which "we're looking for behaviors in a person's history that might cause an employer to go, 'Hmm,'" Canaan explained.

Military History

As a starting point, Stock recommended taking a close look at the applicant's military record (if there is one) – specifically, the DD-214, or certificate of release or discharge from active duty.

"Bad military service is the best predictor of future bad behavior in the workplace," asserted Stock, who is a managing partner at the Florida-based Incident Management Group Inc.

The DD-214 contains several key pieces of information for prospective employers, including the separation code (which indicates the type of discharge) and the pay grade upon discharge.

"We expect most people who complete their term of service to come out, no matter what the service is, at E4 if they're not officers," Stock explained. "If we see somebody who comes out at an E1, absolutely 100 percent of the time it tells you that they've had problems in the military."

Likewise, if the DD-214 indicates that the person has anything lower than an honorable discharge, "inquire about it," Stock added.

Criminal History

As a police officer, private investigator and security consultant, Canaan has observed that when a person engages in criminal behavior, he or she rarely goes "from zero to 60." More often than not, there are warning signs indicating that the person has mental problems or other issues.

"There are always indicators that family, friends, co-workers or neighbors see, but they either don't report it or don't know who to report it to," Canaan said.

In the cases he has handled, the downward spiral typically plays out over the course of several years, and follows a common arc. As the person's life deteriorates – in lockstep with his or her worsening mental condition – the individual does something that lands him or her in jail or a mental institution.

"They'll be assessed by a mental health professional and then put on medications for their mental health problem, perhaps go through court-ordered counseling if it's free and get released into society," Canaan said.

"Then, almost always in my experience, they fall off their meds for whatever reason – either they don't think they need them anymore, they can't afford them anymore or they just forget to take them. And then that slide downward begins again, until they get arrested again."

When looking at an applicant's criminal history as part of a pre-employment screening, Canaan suggested paying close attention to the types of crimes committed. "Is it a shoplift? Is it an assault? Is it harassment? A rape? A sexual assault?" Canaan said. "Is it trespassing? More specifically, was the person hiding in the woods? Peeping in windows? Sending threatening letters? Have there been restraining orders or no-contact orders?"

Generally speaking, it is legal for an employer to look at an applicant's criminal record, Canaan noted.

"However, there are state and federal laws as to how far one can go back into a person's history," Canaan added. "Here in Washington state, we can go back five years into a person's criminal history. We can go back three years into their driving record. Each state has different laws that might be more restrictive than federal law."

While there's no law forbidding employers from conducting background checks, Fisher & Phillips labor attorney Todd Logsdon noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission believes that such checks have "a discriminatory effect on certain populations," and has taken several companies to court challenging their background-check policies.

To avoid running afoul of the EEOC, Logsdon urged employers to institute consistent policies and procedures governing the use of background checks – such as having the same background-check process for all applicants for a certain job classification.

Employers also should consider keeping data on the results of their background checks, to determine whether or not they've had a disparate impact on minorities or other populations.

"If there has been a disparate impact, then you have to have that good business reason for why it's still important for you to do that particular background check for that particular job," Logsdon said.

Don't Trust Anything

When it comes to vetting applicants who might have strong psychopathic tendencies, Kelly Wilson offered this advice: Don't trust anything on their resumes.

"There have been numerous studies that have shown that as many of 40 percent of degrees claimed on resumes are false, and as many as 50 percent of the phone numbers and job experiences [are false]," said Wilson, who is president and director of forensic services for Minneapolis-based PsyBar LLC. "And many people will put cellphone numbers of their friends [as references] and call them 'Mr. So and So.'"

When contacting references, Wilson recommend calling the main switchboard of the reference's employer instead of the number listed on the applicant's resume.

Because of their bad behavior, psychopaths often bounce from job to job, targeting employers with lax screening procedures. That's why Wilson also recommended asking for pay slips from prior jobs to verify the dates on their applications.

At the very least, take a close at the applicant's resume before the interview, because a psychopath's resume often contains inconsistencies, Wilson said.

In an interview, red flags could include:

  • Ordinary achievements described as monumental.
  • Appearing too relaxed. "You should be a little nervous if you really want a job," Wilson said.
  • An inability to describe the personal qualities of former supervisors or co-workers.

"It's always a good idea to ask them for details about things," Wilson said. "Ask them to name a mistake they made. That's really hard for a psychopath, other than getting caught. But then ask them how it impacted others. Whenever it has something to do with the feelings of others, they don't have the words to describe that very well."

Still, the best way to identify a psychopath, according to Wilson, "is to talk to their co-workers."

"[Psychopaths] tend to rate themselves much higher in capability than the people around them," Wilson said. "And unbeknownst to them, they're often viewed by other employees – especially ones who don't have a stake in this person succeeding – as unethical and taking credit for work they didn't do. They frequently make empty promises and pawn work off on other people."


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