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‘Snakes in Suits’ unmasks corporate psychos

Why do rising stars turn into employees from hell? In their book, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare explain office psychopaths. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

In popular culture, the image of the psychopath is of someone like Hannibal Lecter or the BTK Killer. But in reality, many psychopaths just want money, power, fame, or simply a nice car. Where do these psychopaths go? Often, it's to the corporate world. In their new book, “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work,”Paul Babiak, an industrial-organizational psychologist, and Robert Hare, a psychopathy expert, study office psychopaths. The modern, open, more flexible corporate world, in which high risks can equal high profits, attracts them. They may seem like superstars and corporate saviors, but they can alienate other employees and leave companies in shambles. Babiak and Hare were invited on “Today” to discuss their book. Read an excerpt:

Chapter One
Nice suit. Would a snake wear such a nice suit?

Fred led the group to O’Hare’s tavern after work that night. He started a tab and ordered a round of drinks for everyone from the company. As more people arrived, there were cheers and high-fives as coworkers rejoiced about their good fortune. Fred raised his glass in a toast. Silence spread over the group as everyone turned toward him with a raised glass: “The Pit Bull is dead. Long live the Pit Bull!” he shouted to the glee of everyone there.

“Hear, hear!” they cheered as glasses were emptied and bursts of laughter and applause overtook the room. There was not a sad person in the place that night; quite a change from most Friday nights at O'Hare's over the past two years.

Things at the company had been good up until the Pit Bull arrived. Raises were excellent, bonuses generous, working conditions pleasant, and the chance to work for one of the oldest and most respected names in the business was personally rewarding to many. Nevertheless, as with all good things, there was change. The CEO, “Old Man Bailey”  to his friends (and most employees were his friends), had sold his financial services company to a bigger competitor two years back. However, like so many career executives, he just could not see himself quietly fading away but needed to keep his hands in the business, so he negotiated an interim consulting position on the board to assist with the transition.

The board welcomed his advice and felt comfortable with his occasional visits to his former company’s (now a division) headquarters. Bailey wanted to keep the old values he had impressed upon his people alive in the company, and hoped that they would spread to the other parts of the bigger corporation, but this was not to be. Being part of a big corporation meant that there were now many divisions and locations, and his little piece of the corporate world, as well as his ability to influence, was lessening with each acquisition. Other divisions had their own values, service lines, and ways of doing things, and the corporate staff had their own ideas about what the overall company culture ought to be like.

Although he made a point of staying out of the day-to-day running of the business, one decision in particular that bothered Bailey was the promotional transfer of Gus, a "hotshot whiz kid" according to Bailey, into the top slot as COO of the division. Bailey saw Gus as a status-conscious suck-up who hated holding people accountable, avoided confrontation, preferred to get others to do his dirty work, and was rather susceptible to flattery and attention. Bailey thought Gus spent too much time meeting with the corporate folks and not enough time getting things done in his division.

Soon pitchers of beer and bowls of peanuts were spread out over the tables in O’Hare’s back room, where the group discussed the details of the Pit Bull’s termination. As staff from different departments mingled, those who had heard only some of the rumors sought out more information; others wanted confirmation of the details they had heard. It was great fun to collect different bits and pieces of the story and try to assemble a picture of what had really happened.

Six months into Gus’s tenure, all hell broke loose. For the first time in its long history, Bailey’s division had failed to meet its targets, so much so that the market analysts were starting to make unflattering comments, endangering the reputation of the whole corporation. Making things worse, there was also the risk of a hefty, very public, and humiliating fine for noncompliance on some government work — a fact that had not reached the newspapers yet, but was sure to make headlines if not averted quickly. Bailey felt that Gus ought to be let go, and offered to run the place until a suitable, better-qualified candidate could be found. The corporate executive committee disagreed. In an effort to help Gus and be fair to him in his new role, they decided to create a new director of operations position reporting to him.

One person who caught their attention as the perfect internal candidate for the job was Helen. Helen had joined one of the other acquisitions only a year before and rose to stardom overnight. Her performance review praised her spirit, diligence, focus, energy, and natural ability. She demonstrated her worth to her management, building a reputation for making things happen, for successful project management, and for meeting deadlines. Admittedly, some collateral damage occurred along the way, but that did not seem to concern her management team, who put her on the key management watch list. Yet, despite the glowing reviews from her management, her division was expanding its head count and underperforming, all the while requesting and receiving approval for larger budgets two years in a row. Bailey wondered how the corporate folks could ignore these numbers and put someone who was used to spending money in charge of a financial problem. But then, these were no longer his decisions to make.

Helen did very well in the exploratory interview with the search committee. Her dynamic and engaging manner and her self-proclaimed ability to fix organizational problems — which the division certainly had — made her an obvious choice for the spot. Outside analysts would also see the appointment of such an assertive, vibrant, and directive person to a failing high-profile division as a very firm commitment to meeting the government's regulatory requirements. Her style and her manner matched what both the corporation and analysts wanted to see. The timing, the circumstances, and her abilities seemed like a good fit.

Lynda, from accounting, sat in the corner of the room and sipped her beer. The raucous conversation of the colleagues who sat with her provided a soothing backdrop for Lynda's private thoughts. “You should be happy, Lynda," said Julie, the senior member of the audit team. "You won, and the [expletive deleted] is gone.”

Excerpted from “Snakes in Suits,” by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Copyright 2006, Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from , 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.