Comment: Masks of normality

Although concern about disability is now well within the radar of most HR professionals, mental health problems remain an often neglected dot on the screen. One reason for this is that many psychological conditions are difficult to detect and the right to medical privacy means that those suffering from them are either under no obligation to declare them to their employer or prevented by their condition from doing so. Moreover, elements of some conditions – such as psychopathy and narcissism –  are actually fairly common characteristic of business success.

Most studies of psychopathic tendencies have taken place within medical or correctional institutions. However, psychologists Fritzon and Board have looked at the business environment and concluded that whilst about 1% of the general population meet the clinical criteria for psychopathy, the concentration rises to 3-4% amongst business executives.

But before running ahead to label colleagues in this way, it should be noted that to satisfy such a diagnosis a clinical psychologist would need to identify many related character traits – expertly brought together in the ‘Hare psychopathy checklist’. For instance, the psychopath is eternally confidant, cold hearted, self-centred, and uses fear rather than respect as a way to motivate others. They are masters of manipulation, deflection and deception and able to rationalize extreme behaviours. They are easily bored and are eternal novelty seekers, have short tempers, lie convincingly, mimic real emotional responses and are extremely adept at hiding their true natures. Most disturbingly for businesses, they have the capacity to take huge, unjustified risks – knowing that they would be able to deflect any blame that may come from failure.

But what should an HR professional do if they suspect that a colleague suffers from such a dangerous condition?  Usually inaction seems to be the only possible course of action.  Psychopathy is unlikely to be detected in periodic health checks by occupational physicians and whistleblowing laws will not protect an individual from reprisals if they confide their concerns to others who then leak it. The burden of proof is likely to be very high when the subject of concern is in a powerful position and adept at self-preservation. One important way that HR can respond, however, is not to become the instrument of deranged senior colleagues. The psychopath in a top position will need obedient lieutenants to assert their will across the organisation and there are all kinds of tactics that can be used to subtly frustrate decisions which may verge on illegality, ruin employee relations or risk the company’s reputation.

In the end, however, there will be no alternative for the able and principled HR professional other than to move on. Ironically, it may take a positive testament from the colleague in question to obtain the next position. So maybe the decision to move on should not be left too late.

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