Hollywood loves psychopaths. The movie Wolf of Wall Street is a prime example of this destructive disorder’s ability to entertain us. The story contains a little bit of everything; financial corruption, lack of impulse control, drugs, sex, money and unbridled greed. It’s also a rags-to-riches and back to rags story of a real-life New York stockbroker, Jordan Belfort, who broke the law to find his way to the top. But like any fairy tale, it had to end. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to fraud and related crimes in connection with stock-market manipulation and a host of SEC violations as part of a penny-stock pump and dump scheme. Belfort spent 22 months in prison as part of an agreement under which he gave testimony against numerous partners and subordinates. He subsequently published his memoir The Wolf of Wall Street in 2007, which was adapted into a film of the same name, which released in 2013.
Psychopathy is traditionally considered a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical behaviors and pursuits. Most significantly, psychopaths have no conscience. Most lack empathy and are immensely narcistic. They are both in love with themselves and the image of themselves which they have fabricated. They are desperate, incapable of love and compassion, and believe that you, me, this world, and our universe have been created for their pleasure and benefit. They recklessly careen through life as if there are no guardrails, smashing and destroying everything in their path. And while they know the difference between right and wrong, they simply don’t care.
However, in business it can be extremely difficult to distinguish between the new corporate genius and the psychopath. Without going so far as to physically harm others, workplace psychopaths are unburdened by the pangs of conscience that moderate the rest of us. As such, they can be found wherever power, status, or money is accessible. Apparently normal and almost always charming, their lack of empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse enable them to destroy anything or anyone, including the organizations that they seek to control or into which they are hired. They seek positions and organizations that appreciate skilled management and visionary leadership, and offer them financial opportunity and the fame otherwise unavailable or accessible by honest means.
Decreasing the ability to identify them and their insidious intentions, in advance of their hire, psychopaths often recruit organizational insiders. Usually in positions of authority, the insiders themselves often seek more power and influence. They frequently feel under-appreciated and undervalued. They almost always consider themselves smarter than the people that hired them and whom they report. Once identified, these insiders are targeted with enticements and rewards in exchange for switching their loyalties and compromising their integrity. When finally recruited, these agents then collude with their recruiter(s) to take control of the target organization and overthrow and/or eliminate the organization’s founders, owners and original management team.
To advance their plan, the newly hired and his or her colluders begin to undermine the leader(s) who hired them. Secretly scheming, they begin discrediting existing management and convincingly deflect any questions or criticism that comes their way. Unknowingly and to my ultimate disappointment, I have worked with and employed such people.
Here are some of the behaviors of which they engaged and I later discovered:
- Lying about their past, military service, amount of education and people of influence they knew and considered personal friends;
- Materially misrepresenting the quality and magnitude of their prior business accomplishments and successes;
- Routinely claiming the accomplishments of others as theirs;
- Insisting they should be promoted and if not, threating to resign and go to a competitor;
- Altering and/or fabricating important documents, contracts, and corporate records; and
- Making false promises and misleading statements.
So, what can be done to prevent the hiring and onboarding of such people? Here are just a few ideas:
- Review organizational recruiting and screening procedures and ensure that only the best and most qualified applicants are offered employment and hired;
- Ensure your organization’s mission, vision, values, policies and internal procedures and practices are up to date and properly aligned;
- Listen to what your employees are saying or telling you about the behavior of coworkers;
- Provide your employees access to an externally managed whistleblower hotline that enables them the ability to anonymously report suspicious and improper workplace behavior;
- Investigate all suspicious behavior and irregularities, and to the extent possible, take decisive action when necessary, and finally
- Set an example and be the best role model you can be.
Developing and contributing to an organizational culture which managers and employees are able to express concerns about their colleagues and superiors without fear of reprisal is essential and a benefit to everyone.
But sometimes, it is impossible to escape your Wolf of Wall Street. Under such circumstances, seeking the assistance of the authorities and/or litigation may be your only options.
If interested in learning more about this topic, reach out to me at Gene.Ferraro@ForensicPathways.com or call me at 303.816.1638.