How to avoid getting murdered by your coworkers

Homicide is the third leading cause of workplace death after vehicular accidents and falls according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is part of the green bar below which is actually bigger than the blue bar for falls, but which includes a small number of violent deaths due to animals and violent deaths caused by humans that are not known to have been intentional.

Rene Chun at The Atlantic
suggests that the motivation for most of those 800 workplace murders in 2016 was narcissistic psychopathy:

Frank S. Perri, [is] a CFE and defense attorney who teaches forensic accounting at DePaul University… In “Red Collar Crime,” published in the International Journal of Psychological Studies in 2015, Perri describes a few dozen fraud-related homicides and attempted homicides that he researched in detail. Consider Aaron Hand, the former president of American Financial Group who plotted a $100 million mortgage fraud. After he was jailed, Hand tried to hire hit men to silence an informer. His quotes read like dialogue from a Scorsese movie (“I wish I was there to watch him suffer”).  Perri finds two traits to be most correlated with white-collar violence: narcissism and psychopathy. The latter is even more common than you might expect in the business world. In a 2010 study, researchers administered a test frequently used to gauge psychopathy to 203 managers and executives at seven companies. On a 40-point scale, the average person scores 3 or below. Shockingly, eight subjects pulled a score of 30 or higher, which is serial-killer territory. “Their excellent communication and convincing lying skills, which together would have made them attractive hiring candidates in the first place, apparently continued to serve them well,” the researchers concluded. How many office psychopaths turn violent is less clear: The FBI doesn’t track red-collar crime, nor does OSHA. Richard G. Brody, another CFE and an accounting professor at the University of New Mexico, sometimes trawls the web for murder trials involving white-collar defendants, and has become convinced that red-collar crime is more prevalent than most people suspect. Detectives don’t always spot such homicides, he told me, so crime scenes may be contaminated and murders may pass for suicide. “Whenever I read about high-profile executives who are found dead, I immediately think red-collar crime,” he said. “Lots of people are getting away with murder.”

One way to avoid getting murdered by coworkers is to avoid psychopathic narcissists in your organization. Unfortunately there is evidence that they can succeed in business in part because they are extremely good at lying convincingly and manipulating people. Very few of them will end up as murderers, but even if they don’t kill anyone, they will still try to suck as much out of you, your organization, and your clients as they can. There are several ways organizations can avoid these kinds of people.

  1. Screen job applicants by focusing on dishonesty. Psychopaths are notorious for lying and being very good at it. They are bad at cultivating warm relationships. Always call references for all job applicants to see what kind of relationships they have developed. References cannot legally say any negative opinion that goes beyond a neutral factual description of observed history, but nobody can be sued for giving positive opinions and the lack of any positive opinions should be a danger sign. Plus, it is important to talk to references in person because hearing their tone of voice is worth a thousand words. Beware of references that might be beholden to the applicant such as family or employees because psychopaths are very good at using their power to manipulate people. Always ask how long and how closely a reference has known the applicant because psychopaths are great at making first impressions and making new friends when they think it could benefit them. Ignore references that have known the applicant for less than one year or have only had occasional interactions for longer than one year. Be aware that psychopaths can be good at sucking up to powerful people, but have a harder time getting along with coworkers, so try to talk to someone on their team at their same level of power. Investigate unusual claims on resumes for deception.
  2. Fire employees for selfish dishonesty. Do not even tolerate them cheating a client to profit your organization. Anyone who will cheat clients could cheat you (or worse). Be vigilant. You probably tend to think that everyone else has a personality that is similar to yours, but many people are not like you at all and perhaps one in twenty people are borderline psychopaths or worse.
  3. Create a sense of community. Small organizations (smaller than Dunbar’s number) are good at this and larger organization should divide up into smaller working groups that are small enough to give people a sense of community and team spirit with their coworkers. Narcissist psychopaths are not attracted to community unless they can figure out how to be in charge of it.
  4. Make your organization about mission to serve a higher calling than selfish profit. This should come natural to nonprofits, but some nonprofits and government agencies end up feeling like soulless places where people just want to get their money and get out. In contrast, many small for-profits succeed at instilling a sense of mission that can attract good people. Create an aspirational mission statement and talk about it when you are making important decisions for the organization so that everyone thinks about how decisions are (or are not) fitting in with your mission. Talk openly about ethics. This will attract non-psychopaths and help motivate them to work hard.
  5. Don’t pay top dollar to your top managers. You should be able to pay less than the soulless competition if you can create a sense of mission and/or community that will make up for the lower pay. If you pay more than everyone else, you’ll attract selfish narcissists who just want the money. Narcissist psychopaths are also attracted to power, (and power makes ordinary people a bit more narcissistic and psychopathic) so you’ll still have to screen your managers carefully because lower pay won’t necessarily prevent narcissists from wanting the power and status, but a flatter pay scale helps.

Most of us don’t have much power to steer an organization like this advice recommends, but you can try to screen organizations to see how much mission, community, and honesty is valued there. Nonprofits tend to be less soul crushing than for-profits in my experience and smaller organization tend to be more satisfying than large ones, but there are many exceptions to both these rules of thumb. Perhaps the most important part of the organizational culture for each employee’s work life wellbeing is whether their direct supervisor is a psychopathic narcissist, so do your best to look for the signs. Unfortunately, well balanced supervisors keep employees longer than narcissistic psychopaths, so you are disproportionately likely to get hired by a psychopath whose staff turnover is higher, but if you do find yourself in that kind of position, keep looking for something else.

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Posted in Labor, Managerial Micro

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