Snakes in Suits: Psychopaths in the Workplace

Snakes in Suits, by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, is marketed as a toolkit for businesses that are looking to create environments that don’t attract psychopaths or promote them to positions of reward and influence. In other words, this book markets itself toward those who are worried that an otherwise talentless, lazy person will deeply master all the “soft” skills of being superficially likeable and professional, such as good eye contact, pleasant conversation, a firm handshake–and with occasional viciously Machiavellian gambits, and a complete lack of compassion or conscience–will end up running a department, or the whole company.

Unfortunately, it more reads as being a marketing guide for the advantages of mastering those “soft” skills, and offers only fairly obvious tools for detecting snakes. As the Shakespeare line has it, “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell. Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, yet grace must still look so.” In other words, like the rest of us, psychopaths know nobody wants to work with a psychopath, so they try to blend in, so how would we catch them out anyway?

In the introduction titled Grand Entrance, “Dave” arrives for a mid-level job interview at a hot professional firm, dressed impeccably and flashing a brilliant smile. He is charming to all, quickly navigating people past their planned H.R. scripts and getting them to talk about themselves. He does so well in a few interviews with folks in the department, that they call and cancel interviews with other applicants: they already have the “perfect” applicant. Dave is offered the position at a top-end salary, but negotiates hard and gets a starting bonus and a promise of a performance review–with a shot at another raise–within six months. Of course, the cover has a picture of a man wearing a snake for a tie, and “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work” is, ahem, suitably expressive, so we know that “Dave” isn’t someone we want to be. But hold on for a second–who doesn’t want to be in Dave’s shoes, hired to such a fast-tracked, lucrative position on the strength of his smile and handshake?

Okay. Yeah, so actually, most of us would prefer to have that kind of richer emotional landscape than psychopaths really enjoy. Duh. So, there’s that. So we don’t actually want to *be* pathologically amoral, we just want some of the skillset that pathologically amoral people tend to develop (such as a good handshake or good eye contact), and other skills also. This book, however, is not much help for that. It references what skills psychopaths may have at the level of recognizing them, not developing them.

Ultimately, the book can be seen as comprised of three styles. First, there’s a companionable voice that weaves parables about “Dave” and other true-life or plausible pyschopaths into a parade of horribles to scare any corporate executive into worrying that maybe they really are vulnerable to psychopathic manipulation–this is the emotive appeal. Second, there’s a medical, authoritative voice offering a clinical appraisal, relaxing the reliance on gut appeal, and switching to a shallow logic of appraisal. Third, there’s a pragmatic voice that cuts in with proactive steps HR departments and others in corporate settings can use to protect against manipulative people.

Overall, this third voice is the only one that’s really very practical, and it’s by far the smallest fraction of the book: there are only a small handful of practical tips accompanying the fear-peddling stories and the authoritarian confidence of a “medical” understanding (that appears rooted firmly in anecdote).

What tips there are will fit handily into the rest of this review. The tips are handily divisible along the classic Art-of-War division: know thyself, know thy enemy.

In the first category, psychopaths are arrogant, even sometimes sloppy liars. So double-check references and resumes. Likewise, psychopaths are attracted to h.r. settings where there are shortcuts around the hard work of personal skill development–so make sure to have multiple, seriously considered candidates for each position to be filled, rather than “grooming” a single candidate. And don’t reward people who over-rely on the work of others.

In the second category, psychopaths prey on weaknesses, so know yourself, and your team, and be proactive about addressing your insecurities and desires, and make sure people have a supportive h.r. department where they can take complaints and concerns. If so-and-so is nervous they are perceived as incompetent, or so-and-so feels underpaid and underappreciated–that’s the sort of thing pyschopaths pick up on, and exploit.

In particular, the book mentions that psychopaths are often well-attuned to who in an office has “soft” power, such as the mail room staff, schedulers, or I.T. trouble-shooters–so taking care that there are clear responsibilities, and that people from the very top to the very bottom are responsibly integrated into the company culture can be prophylactic.

Lightly edited 24 Jan 2017 to remove typographical errors.

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