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Safeguarding HR Processes from Dishonesty and Psychopathic Behaviour based on ‘Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work’ by P Babaik & R D Hare

The authors highlighted both Hiring Practices and Succession Planning as the most vulnerable HR functions to the dangers presented to them by psychopaths. Often management complain about the length of time that these processes take and that HR Practitioners only complicate them more. In reality when done properly these processes should ensure the short and long term viability and prosperity of the organisation. Think of the recent resignation of Scott Thompson as the CEO of Yahoo. Scott Thompson’s resume stated that he had a degree in computer science from a university which at that time didn’t even offer a computer science degree.  If a background check had been done on him prior to his appointment then this discrepancy would have been found and his appointment would have never been made. Their HR would have been spared related embarrassment, and Yahoo would have also have been spared considerable negative publicity.

Applicants generally speaking have a tendency to overstate information in their resumes. Most exaggerations can be found in the areas pertaining to background, experience and education. For example an individual may state that they had greater responsibilities or higher level reporting lines than was really true. Also they may tailor their resume for an organisation or particular job.

Psychopaths are good marketers who almost invariably go beyond exaggerations to complete lies. It will be normal for HR to be impressed with their resumes and not detect the difference between their resumes and that of normal candidates. Previous jobs, promotions and qualifications are often completely mythical.

As the corporate world becomes more global, it becomes more imperative for HR to always check credentials. Background checks and internet searches can be very useful in assisting one to find information pertaining to candidates. Background checks should be done through organisations which are authorised to do so.

Psychopaths invariably come across very well in an interview. They are astute at ascertaining what others want to hear and verbalising it. Thus it is very important to be able to differentiate between them and candidates who are ‘normal’. Second interviews are recommended, even better is to conduct a panel interview. Panel members are not that good at gaining from candidates the relevant information as they are normally not that experienced in interviewing applicants. It is good to ensure that they are trained in such processes and that they are prepared for each interview beforehand. For example if one uses the interview style STAR (Situation, Task, Action and Result), then they need to know exactly how this style works. Empowering them through training will help ensure that they take ownership of this process.

When one is going through an interview the authors recommend the following points be kept in mind:

  • Retain control of the interview: Psychopaths can avoid direct questions and rather direct the conversation towards topics which interviewers will be interested in.
  • Anxiety levels: Psychopaths do not experience normal anxiety and discomfort levels when being interviewed and will be more skilled at manipulating the process.
  • Stick to the plan: The purpose of an interview is to gather facts, verify them and based on this make an informed decision. One does not want it to simply be a friendly conversation. Keep the process structured and ask all the planned questions. This will ensure standardisation focused on getting relevant information on applicants’ knowledge, ability, experience, skills and attitudes.
  • Ask for work samples: As the information given in the resume may be phony drill down to details in past work experiences to help in determining honesty and applicability.
  • Focus on action and behaviour: Interviewees can exaggerate or speak vaguely about past behaviours. Asking questions focusing on ‘who, what, when and why’ assists in probing memory and trying to get honest answers about what the individuals role was in each type of situations they discussed with you.
  • Clarify details: Ask for clarification when individuals do not give sufficient information. To double check on information given one can go back and repeat questions.
  • Look for inappropriate feelings: Psychopaths are emotionally deficient and often react inappropriately to the right revealing questions.
  • Take notes: Recommended for recalling facts and for being able to compare notes between panel members.
  • Do not decide alone: A trait of a psychopath is to build a one on one relationship with anyone whom possesses utility to them. Panel interviews will prevent a bond being formed.
  • Know thy self: The psychopath will quickly ascertain the interviewer’s value system and tailor their responses in order to make a good impression. This is because they are able to observe and read emotions which they do not experience.
  • Lying is hard to detect: According to the authors it is much harder to ascertain lying than you or I may think. Therefore always rely on corroborating evidence to validate what is said.
  • Verifying facts: Use references but remember that the person giving the reference may be enamoured with the psychopath and not give a real account.
  • Putting it all together: Combine all this information and come to a group decision. The more screens and hurdles there are the better the hiring decision will be.

Through Succession Planning an organisation grooms individuals internally for development and promotion within the organisation. Individuals are often identified by management and recommended to HR for these processes. Organisations will benefit from using structured processes to determine suitable candidates as well as relying on management’s opinion. Other steps to consider entail the following:

  • It could be advantageous to do 360’s on potential candidates so as to get opinions from other people within the organisation.
  • Use batteries of assessments in a standardised manner to gather more information. Be aware that faking may occur in personality assessments, especially when an individual is strongly motivated to reflect certain traits which they believe the organisation is looking for.
  •  Groom more than one candidate per position.
  • Existing HR records should be reviewed and accuracy ensured.

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


Written by Laura Simpson

HR – Organisational Development


083 6801907


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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


C: +27 (0)82 416 7712

T: +27 (0)10 035 4185 (Office)

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