Detoxifying the Workplace
This article accompanies Weeding Out Psychopaths.
No matter how carefully an organization evaluates potential new hires, a few psychopaths are bound to slip through.
Once on the job and exhibiting toxic tendencies, psychopaths must be handled the same as any other problem employee, according to Michael Mercer, an industrial psychologist and president of Mercer Systems Inc.
Unfortunately, some employers have unwittingly provided "a fertile environment for psychopaths" by abandoning traditional performance-management systems, says Paul Babiak, an industrial and organizational psychologist.
"These are the very defenses that organizations need to protect themselves from those who would take advantage of co-workers and the company itself," says Babiak. Performance-appraisal processes that a psychopath can exploit "can inadvertently facilitate the psychopath's rise into higher levels of management, where he or she can do more damage."
Rather than adopting an informal performance-management structure -- or abolishing it altogether -- Babiak recommends organizations strengthen their systems and document "clear evidence of [the] poor performance, dysfunctional work habits, and abusive and disrespectful behavior" observed in their psychopathic employees.
He cautions employers to avoid using the term "psychopath" when discussing an employee's performance, as doing so could result in legal action. Psychopaths, Babiak says, "love to use the law as a weapon, and they are very good at it."
Likewise, psychopaths tend to be vengeful people who are likely to retaliate against those they believe have wronged them, adds Mercer. It's critical to ensure absolute confidentiality for employees who have come forward to make management aware of a problem co-worker.
"The psychopath is going to figure out who reported their manipulative, con-artist behavior and try to get back at them," says Mercer.