How can one spot potential psychopaths during an interview? Psychopaths are able to effectively blend into the surroundings, but can have devastating consequences to work relationships and affect the work environment (not to mention the relationships at home. They are often characterized by appearing to interact with their colleagues, but really relying on subterfuge, lies and cheating to achieve their ends. They feel that they are always right, even if they lie to achieve their own ends. Giving impressive answers to normal interview questions would be no problem for the average psychopath. Once identified it is usually very problematic to deal with employees that are psychopaths, or to remove them from their positions. Screening them out during the interview process would always be preferable.

bug_girl's picture

Um....why are you concerned about hiring a psychopath? I'm just curious. 

Generally, behavioral interviewing can give me enough info to get a feeling of "that boy ain't right", but not much more. 
My gut has been pretty accurate in the past, so I tend to go with it.

What happened that made this a concern, given the low statistical probablity of hiring a person with a severe personality disorder?

johnm's picture

In the US, studies have shown that about 1-4% of the educated workforce are classified as psychopaths. The percentage is higher as you go up the levels of management/leadership. I have seen it and heard of the problems associated with having psychopaths, and of the grief, effort and issues to get them out of the company. Yes, some do achieve, but most achieve at the expense of the others nearby and the company itself. Most do not behave in a morally and ethically correct manner, which is at least why most psychopaths create major issues in the work place. Do I want to hire a psychopath? No. Hence my question. How can I spot it? As to you detecting that they are psychopaths in an interview: standard behavioral questions will not reveal this. Believe me. They generally have spent their entire life lying and are extremely good at it. Remember, if you know 100 people, about 4 (or more) are born and breed psychopaths, and you do not know it. Your first encounter with a person eventually classified as a psychopath is a shock. You, yourself, may spot them, but that would make you very perceptive. Even psychiatrists have problems catching them. The fact is, it is most probable that you do not know if you have ever spotted a psychopath, or let one through the hiring process. So how can we spot them? What area do we question in an interview that may reveal a potential problem?

peterddw's picture

This is an interesting topic. This really only affects a small percentage of the population as mentioned by JohnM but inadvertently hiring one could have a much bigger impact on your group's success. It is a lot more complex than I would address off the cuff. I suggest you have a look at this book on the topic.

"Snakes in Suits -When Psycopaths go to Work" by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare (2006)


johnm's picture

I have seen the pain and problems when a psychopath achieves even a modicum of authority within an organisation. It is not a nice sight. And to counter, they are more common than you think. It has been suggested that questions concerning the childhood and relationships to their children, parents and spouse can ID a potential problem. Does anyone have any pointers?

Thank you for the book suggestion

bug_girl's picture

I have actually had more than my share of mental illness in employees.  The most common one, and most destructive, that I have encountered is borderline personality disorder.

Generally, the truly ill people--and here I mean with a major psychosis or personality disorder--can't function, and have a pattern of job hopping.  They also tend to set off my hair-on-back-of-neck alarm.  (I'm a hi-S, and have an unusual life history, so maybe I'm just more in tune with people.)

I want to also point out that in the US, mental illness is a disability.  Many, many people have bipolar disease, or depression, or some other problem that keeps them from working at full capacity. Many of us may be "normal"* now, but may develop a mental illness in the future, or have overcome one in the past.  Many people with mental illness have achieved amazing things, and are top performers.

You might find reading this article on the ADA and mental illness helpful.  This is an evolving area of law.  What you are talking about here is planning to discriminate against a group, based on your perception that they will be unable to perform.

I still return to my question--you are worrying about a tiny fraction of a population, and you admit that few professionals can detect these problems. Why spend the energy on this?  You probably have at least 3 or 4 people working with you right now with a major illness that could go postal at anytime if they go off their meds.  You just can't control everything.

If you have clearly defined job performance criteria, then removing someone who turns out to be a bad apple--for whatever reason--will be easier.


*yes, I recognize the irony of me being the one to use "normal" :P

bug_girl's picture

With reference to John's comment--

There is, in fact, a difference between being a psychopath and being a schmuck.  One is rare, the other unfortunately, all too common.  Is being a colossal jerk a type of mental illness? Maybe. 

But it may also just be immaturity, insecurity, or a whole host of other things.


 Edited to add: Here's a link to DSM IV, the official diagnostic manual. You can read this on Google books.

Note that Sociopath and psychopath are NOT in this book. They are media terms, not terms used by professional psychiatrists.


Edited again to remove offending word :)  yiddish ok?

Mark's picture
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I have so many concerns with this thread, I'll only share a few in the interest of brevity. 

1.  YOU CANNOT "spot" a psycopath.  None of us here is either knowledgeable enough, nor credentialed enough - to "spot" any sort of mental illness.

You don't "spot" such a thing - it's a diagnosis.

2.  No hypotheticals, please.  It doesn't appear anyone here is facing this issue.  Were that to be true, I would recommend you seek  help from a mental health professional who has workplace experience.

3. Let's please substitute "jerk" for some of the more colorful language.

4.  The law here is VERY complicated.  And this is not a legal forum.

I see no compelling interest in this thread, and am likely to prune it.



bug_girl's picture

and please feel free to prune whatever you want Mark.

Sometimes you can tell I work on a farm, eh?  :(

Mark's picture
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Well done!  I sure am glad you're here Bug Girl!


430jan's picture

Just hate to see Bug_Girl hanging out on a limb by herself. Come on Mark, we can handle this!

Let's assume a psychopathic new hire slips through your skillful interview (sheesh! Are you watching too many stalker movies???). Focus on the employee's behaviors. If you follow the manager tools way, you will have plenty of opportunity to correct for problematic behaviors through the trinity. If they are not improving then you will be removing them from their position for causative behaviors, not because of a mental illness.

If an employee's mental illness is not affecting their job performance then it really isn't any of your business. if, as you say, the employment of such an individual has "devastating consequences", then you will have plenty of documentation of their ineffectiveness, and your attempts to correct, because of all of your one-on-ones. Compassion for mental illness aside (and in my book it isn't), you still get to retain employees that can do the job. The podcasts will show you the way. 


and p.s. I am not a lawyer, but I have seen a lot of ineffective employees removed that just happened to have a mental illness. The managers in trouble are those that have not laid the foundation of focusing on work product.

bug_girl's picture

And this is the BLUF version of everything I said with so many more words:

<blockquote>If an employee's mental illness is not affecting their job performance then it really isn't any of your business</blockquote>


malekz's picture

I'm with Zoellner (Janet) and Bug_Girl and disappointed with Marks trying to prune this thread.

People are not trying to label anybody here or write prescriptions for them. It's extremely an important topic to be discussed in this forum especially if we take a serious look at the other side of the coin. That is, managers with some form of borderline personality disorders. They are rampant and in positions of power to affect negatively the lives of so many employees and their families. The risks with these managers would be much greater than with employees having mental/psychological problems.

I'm saying this because I had a terrible experience working for a small company who's president hired me and, in my view and those of others, had a "Rhino" personality driving everybody crazy. But no one could do anything about it except eventually leave the Company.

For those of you DISC aficionados, read about the eye-opening "Rhino Dynamics" on I have no personal connection to this site and am not trying to advertise it.


Mark's picture
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The comments in this thread are, in my opinion, not addressing the original question, and even if they were, it's a hypothetical situation and one where terminology and legal ramifications make it both a dangerous subject and an unlikely to be solved one. 

The Manager Tools answer is above in my post.

Malekz, your comment has nothing to do with hiring.  Having a bad boss doesn't address the original intent of the thread.

You're welcome to start a new thread, addressing WORKING WITH or EMPLOYING said person.  If there is such energy, you'll get responses.  But beware - the lack of clarity of terms and rarity of this topic means it will bear additional scrutiny.