Do You Know Who You Work With?


September 15, 2013

Have you ever wondered if you know a psychopath?  I don’t mean those people you may jokingly (and insensitively) refer to that way, I mean someone who would be diagnosed by a mental health professional that way.  I’d like to think I haven’t met someone in that category, but according to a recent article in Scientific American Mind, there is a chance I have.  Which means you may have too.

According to the article ‘Inside the Mind of a Psychopath‘, there are an estimated 250,000 people walking freely in the US who fall into this category.  Of course, like many mental illnesses, there are various degrees of affected behavior.  What grabbed my attention is that if there are people walking among us, that means that they are with us in the workplace. I think back to the years that Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy were living what appeared to be normal lives.  Yet, the horrors that arose in their minds that they then brought to bear on human beings were ghastly.  They were still in someone’s workplace.

What is it and why do I care?

Psychopathic behaviors are believed to stem from problems in the paralymbic system.  This portion of the brain controls our emotional responses, pain responses, ability to control our impulses, cognitive control, and social decision making ability, to name a few.  Think about that in terms of being in HR or being a manager in an organization.  Much of what we try to do with employees is work on goal setting and ways to motivate that employee.  Now, knowing that it is unlikely that an employee is a psychopath, how would that play out if they had some characteristics of malfunction in their paralymbic system?  Can motivation be negatively impacted and what, if anything, can we do to help the employee?

The research leans to the fact that people with lesser developed paralymbic systems  may be more prone to higher pain tolerance, may participate in riskier behavior, and may not understand social norms.  Just reading the article, I feel like some of the very behaviors we hope to modify in the workplace may , in fact, be out of the employee’s control.

Behaviors Among Us

While HR pros and managers do get our fair share (and then some) of extreme employee issues, I’m comforted knowing that most of us will never have to deal with a psychopath.  However, we do get people with some of the behaviors such as:

Poor behavior control
Lack of realistic long-term goals
Superficial charm and exaggerated sense of self-worth
Pathological lying
Not taking responsibility for their actions
Committing crimes

I challenge myself, and you, to learn more about ways to positively deal with people who may have undiagnosed brain dysfunction or who have characteristics that seem to be uncontrollable.  Learn the EAP offerings so that you can steer them in a positive direction.  And, for those employees who may just demonstrate a characteristic or two, find ways to engage them in their work so that you can mitigate many of the negative impacts of their behavior.


  • Anyone who remembers the DC Sniper will know the name “John Allen Muhammad” – he applied to work at a company where I was HR Manager in 2002.

    In hindsight, thankfully, he didn’t make the cut for candidates, as we were looking for a skilled tech. But most of the time we weren’t that selective…. it was a “passes the background and drug screen” type of job in light industrial.

    Psychopaths, indeed.

    • @Tammy- I first read your comment when I landed in the airport. I wrote the post on the plane and your comment gave me goosebumps! How completely scary and SO glad you did not hire John Allen Muhammad for whatever reason. That just proves that there really are people among us that we need to be very careful of. Thank you for sharing that story with us!

    • @Paul- Thanks for sharing that link. While the article I read did not discuss sociopaths, it is quite interesting to see how many of the characteristics are similar between the two. Makes me think twice about how to handle workplace situations. Thanks for sharing the link with us. I appreciate your insight, as always.

  • Trisha, when I went out on my own as a consultant, one of my gigs was to coordinate a mass layoff. It was in a blue-collar, manufacturing environment that had zero safety protocols. One of the first things we did was set up searches of all equipment and containers coming in and going out. The day before the layoff, a manager was caught at the entrance attempting to carry a gun into the plant. We called the police, he was picked up and it turned out he had an outstanding warrant for assault with a deadly weapon in another state. (For some reason it did not get picked up in the background check.) We subsequently discovered that was receiving psychiatric treatment.

    The scariest part was that he was everyone’s favorite manager at the plant. His employees loved him, his VP loved him. He had a fantastic reputation at the company. No one had a clue.

    We never know.

    • @Alicia- Very scary. What a relief that this was caught before anything horrible happened. I had similar stories in past jobs where employees brought guns to work. Like many times when something bad happens and you see it on the news, everyone interviewed by the reporter says “He/ she was the nicest person. We never thought they would do it.” Says something about who we should trust. Thanks for sharing your story Alicia.

  • I’ve worked in social services with at risk youth, and have seen first hand how mental illness can work. Many of the youths were diagnosed or classified as “rule out [insert diagnosis here],” which is a nice way to label them without labeling them. I’ve seen kids turn on a dime and lash out at someone who was their best friend moments ago. I’ve seen youth that had no idea how to properly interact with others. I’ve seen a few that had given up on ever trying, and just wanted to get by.

    I see it in my coworkers from time to time. It doesn’t make them damaged, or less worthy of a spot on the team. But my experience does make it easier for me to deal with them and figure out their thought process. I think that’s why I’ve had success in putting teams together. To paraphrase George Carlin, we are all damaged, just in different ways. It’s part of what makes diversity such an interesting task.

    • @Dwane- Definitely helpful to have your background with youth in your current role. Love the Carlin reference…and so true. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks so much for beginning this discussion. I have 30 years in the EAP field so believe me, we constantly deal with managers who are concerned about their employees stability and overall workplace safety. But as you point out, the even more difficult situations are those that you don’t even know about yet. Our suggestions to managers are that they not diagnose but rather focus on job performance. If this is done consistently, then issues will be detected early. Once HR or a manager does note something, they should consult with the EAP about strategies for constructive confrontation with that employee. The EAP will also help you work at keeping the performance improvement plan separate but aligned with the EAP support provided for the employee and you.

    When working together, HR or managers and EAP can facilitate a very effective plan that will maintain a safe workplace, help give the employee the best chance at improvement and demonstrate that the company cares.

    • @Bernie- Thank you for weighing in. The suggestion you make about the manager focusing only on job performance then letting any issues come up naturally is a great one. By then, the HR manager can tell the EAP rep about the behaviors they are seeing so that a plan of action can be created. Such a great suggestion! Thank you.

  • Well I will just add this to the list of reasons I am thankful to work from home. Oh my goodness! Frightening thought.

    How many times has HR been leery of terminating someone in fear of what they might do? Too many I’m sure. But the risk of keeping them employed is an issue too.

  • After yesterday’s events in Washington, a good time to revisit this idea.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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