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Book Review: Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by P Babaik & R D Hare

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work

Buy this book now, click here


This book is well on the way to becoming a classic. It is often quoted in the media in connection with high profile fraud cases. The topic of pathology within the workplace is becoming more prevalent because organisations have moved from bureaucracies to transitional based organisations which need to continually evolve and change. As a result employees no longer work for one company for their working life, but move about continually. This new environment is well suited to psychopaths who often join an organisation, create havoc and then leave. Psychopaths are particularly attracted to companies which are fast paced, offer many opportunities for promotion, have lucrative profit potential and employee people who embrace change orientated environments. Does this sound like your organisation?  Risk taking, high stress tolerance and strong decision making ability are traits of both good leaders and psychopaths. Are these traits which you assess for when recruiting? If so you need to be aware that the consequences of recruiting a leader who is also a psychopath will be disastrous.

The definition of a psychopath used in this book is as follows: it is a personality disorder which applies to individuals who are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anybody other than themselves. The danger facing HR is aggravated by the fact that these people are the ultimate chameleons and masters of impression management, so they usually go undetected until they have caused serious harm to the organisation.  For example, when they are with anxious people they will affirm them by coming across as non-threatening and reassuring. When with someone who is dynamic and passionate about their work they will respond as though they are like minded. People quickly come to think the psychopath is their best friend when in fact they are just playing to their particular personality type for the purpose of personal advancement.  

According to the statistics quoted in the book it is estimated that about 1% of the population fits a clinical definition of psychopathology. While perhaps another 9% of the population exhibit enough traits to be defined as fitting into a grey zone of potential employees who are likely to cause significant harm to other employees and the organisations they work for but do not meet all diagnostic based requirements. The authors’ research indicates approximately 3% of people in management positions are psychopaths. This excludes the even greater percentage of management whose personalities are such that they fall into ‘grey zone of psychopathology’.

Professor Hare was instrumental in the design of the ‘Psychopathy Checklist – Revised, or PCL-R’ which is generally accepted as the best checklist for assessing for psychopathology.  In South Africa only Clinical Psychologists, are allowed to administer clinical assessments such as this one. This assessment is not a questionnaire which the individual completes, but rather one which is determined by qualitative face to face interviews by the psychologist along with other relevant information. I have listed below the four main areas and subcategories of the clinical assessment tool.

The basic Domains and Traits of the Psychopath (from the PCL Screening Version) as explained in the book are as follows:

Interpersonal                                                                    Affective

The person is:                                                                    The person:

Superficial                                                                           Lacks remorse                                  

Grandiose                                                                           Lacks empathy

Deceitful                                                                              Doesn’t accept responsibility


Lifestyle                                                                              Antisocial

The person:                                                                        The person has a history of:

Is impulsive                                                                        Poor behavioural controls

Lacks goals                                                                          Adolescent antisocial behaviour

Is irresponsible                                                                 Adult antisocial behaviour


The authors have found that psychopaths invariably work according to a three stage model when dealing with other individuals. The first stage is the ‘assessment stage’ where they will analyse you in terms of how they can con or manipulate you for personal gain. They look at all individuals in terms of what you could possibly offer them, for example does a person have access to private information they need or will they be able to offer promotional opportunities. Most individuals can be useful regardless of their rank or position within an organisation and all, are viewed, as potential targets or as obstacles to be eliminated. Once psychopaths have identified who will be useful to them, they will move to the second stage of ‘manipulation’. The authors describe this stage as psychopathic fiction, which is comprised of charm and deceit. Psychopaths make good first impressions and are often considered by others to be more trustworthy than normal people. People seem to instinctively trust psychopaths and form what they believe to be really good bonds with them. A feature of psychopathic strategies is that they work mostly in one on one relationships which are shrouded in secrecy. It is during this stage that they will con people into doing for them what they ultimately want. Once they no longer need people they move to the ‘abandonment stage’ where they simply ‘drop’ without any guilt or remorse their ‘best friend’, and then move on to their next victim, from whom they believe they have something to gain from. Often they are gone before their victim has any idea as to what has actually happened and if the psychopath reconsiders the victim’s potential usefulness, then the whole process is repeated by the psychopath. It is a case of ‘deceive me once, shame on you. Deceive me twice shame on me’. But unfortunately the authors have found this happens all too often.



Reference: P. Babaik and R.D. Hare, ‘Snakes in Suits, when psychopaths go to work’ (2007)


Written by Laura Simpson

HR – Organisational Development

Email: laura@workinfo.com

Cellular: 083 6801907

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


C: +27 (0)82 416 7712

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