How To Spot A Psychopath In A Job Interview (And Avoid Hiring Them)

We’ve already covered extensively on this blog how damaging psychopaths are to a company if they allow them in, and then tolerate them. The bottom line is despite superficial appearances, these are definitely NOT people you want in your company long term, so how do you stop them getting in in the first place? Is it possible to spot psychopaths at job interviews?

That’s what we are going to cover in this article. The usual method of consulting a checklist of common psychopathic traits unfortunately won’t serve you particularly well here, since psychopaths can very convincingly put up a very charming “front act” to get what they want, including job positions.

Therefore you need to look more indirectly at signs of a person presenting something of a charade at a job interview, but to an extreme, manipulative degree, to spot a psychopath.

In general, you can expect a charm offensive from a psychopath in a job interview, often convincingly presenting themselves as the perfect candidate. Expect them to present a warm, charming, relatable persona, telling the interviewer everything they want to hear and often seeming almost too good to be true.

The good news is that even if you don’t spot them at the interview stage, the reference checking and vetting stage is another great chance to catch them, as long as you don’t let the psychopath manipulate you into skipping this very important step.

Let’s look at some key ways to spot a psychopath at a job interview, as well as other recommendations to avoid hiring these very damaging people in the first place.

Common Traits Displayed By Psychopaths In Job Interviews

A psychopath realizes on some level that they need to present themselves as the opposite of who they really are at a job interview. In reality, they are toxic, disordered and manipulative, but they need to present as charming, put together and friendly.

Therefore that’s what you’ll see them doing at interviews. They can put an enormous amount of energy into this “front act”, so here are some signs to watch out for:

  • They often stride in with a confident, strong swagger, very well dressed, with a broad smile and firm handshake. They’ll be looking to make a good first impression.
  • A superficial warmth and charisma the psychopath appears to exude, at least when you first meet them. Designed to get you captivated by them. Psychopaths can be very charismatic; the air can seem to buzz around them.
  • A “slickness” and “coolness” that can easily take in more materialistic and shallow people especially. A social ability to “chit the chat” and seemingly do and say all the right things at the right time. Will often appear to be very engaged and engaging socially.
  • Their charm  and confidence is often characterized by a total lack of shyness, self consciousness, humility or self doubt. It is brazen and not afraid to approach or say anything.
  • They’ll be very complimentary about the interviewer, boss, company and surroundings, perhaps suspiciously so, in order to ingratiate themselves as best as they can.
  • They’ll often present an impressive looking CV, with extensive accomplishments, status and tenure (actually check up on what’s there though, and you’ll often find discrepancies and deception there with psychopaths).
  • They put up a front that can be so charming and engaging that we are easily taken in by them, to the point where we forgo common sense precautions and just let them into our lives (“ah, just give him the job, we don’t need to get references, he’s alright”). Psychopaths are brilliant at charming their way in like that.
  • Can appear very funny and captivating, tell great stories, anecdotes etc. Appears very extroverted, outgoing and sociable.
  • In short, they can read people very quickly and very well, being everything you want them to be in that moment. Psychopaths are all about manipulating the perception of others, so they will rarely give a poor interview. They’ll be on top form and come across as very likeable, confident, interested and engaging.

In other words, they’ll put an enormous amount of energy into presenting themselves as the perfect candidate, all things to all men, everything you hoped for and more. See our article for more on the glib, superficial charm psychopaths are known to exude.

“A psychopath’s front game will be the best front game in town”

Dr Ramani Durvasula

Here are some common things you might find gullible interviews saying if they get wooed by the psychopath’s charm offensive:

  • “Wow, this guy’s so charming and engaging”
  • “Wow, what a charismatic and powerful presence. This guy’s got some force of personality. He could drive us forward.”
  • “He/she’s literally perfect for us! They’re the perfect match! We don’t need references; let’s just get them in as soon as possible.”
  • “This guy is literally too good to be true.”
  • “One could not ask for a better candidate. Perfect. Let’s take him on before the competition snaps him up.”

Needless to say, if you do take this person on, it’ll be quickly apparent this person isn’t the best thing since sliced bread, and you’ll start to have serious problems in your organization, even if you can’t pin it down to them right away.

Let’s look at some ways to stop this happening.

Best Practices To Avoid Hiring Psychopaths

The best place to weed out psychopaths is at job interviews, but sometimes you can also catch them at the reference checking stage as long as you understand what you’re dealing with and always follow proper procedures.

Here are a couple of best practices to avoid hiring psychopathic candidates:

The “Too Good To Be True” Rule – Never forget the classic sayings – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of someone literally presenting themselves as the “perfect” candidate in an interview, especially if there seems to be a lot of charming going on. It’s very rare someone will present as literally perfect and flawless at an interview – everyone has weaknesses, foibles and flaws. Psychopaths often try to create the perfect image, but scratching a little beneath the surface, this isn’t even realistic. Honestly assess whether the person presented not perfectly, but realistically, at the interview, and ask more questions if it literally seemed almost too perfect.

CV Checks – Psychopaths are relentlessly manipulative and deceitful (see here), and can be very brazen in putting things on their CV that are just plain false or made up, and bank on them charming their way in at the interview to the point where their history won’t be checked. Never let this happen and always check that the work history stacks up. If you’re finding it doesn’t, and there’s evidence of deception, discard that candidate right away, regardless of how well they came across at interview.

Reference Checks – This is a huge one. Always follow the full and correct procedure for character and reference checks when employing new people, especially those who come across as especially charming and charismatic, almost to the point of seeming “too good to be true”. It’s often when you dig into the past of psychopaths that their real personality becomes more apparent, which is why they put so much energy into this charming initial “front act” to sway people away from doing this. Don’t be fooled by this and always set and follow proper recruitment standards for all applicants, regardless of how they come across initially. In fact, follow procedures even MORE rigorously for candidates that come across as particularly charming at interviews.

Quality of References – Also, be especially wary of the quality of references you receive from particularly charming candidates. If you keep finding un-contactable references, this is a first red flag. Continually only getting neutral references is another. More generally, pay attention to the tone of the referees you interact with – watch out for references that have a feel of actually being a “buddy” dynamic with the candidate more than a professional relationship. In Hare & Babiak’s Snakes In Suits, they recount a story of how an employer rang one reference from a psychopathic candidate, and it sounded on the phone like they were more in a frat party than a professional workplace. Again, it’s hard to pin down into a formula, but look for a collection of these data points that just don’t seem quite right, and just get your “spidy senses” tingling that this person might not be as they’ve presented themselves.

Beware Of Psychopaths Upgrading The Front Act

Following the steps recommended above should help you catch more unrefined, unintelligent, uneducated psychopaths. However, it is also true that some psychopaths are smarter, and realize who and what they are, even to the point of knowing that the term psychopath/sociopath is what describes them.

You might call these “white collar” or educated, degree level, corporate psychopaths. The suit and tie wearing psychopath like the Patrick Bateman character in American Psycho. These people have often refined and upgraded their front act to more cleverly blend into society and seem normal, and can therefore be harder to spot at job interviews.

Some of them even read books and blogs like this on psychopathy/sociopathy, to understand what people are looking for, and to better conceal certain traits. But the same toxic, destructive thinking process is going on with these people as any other psychopath, they’ve just learned to conceal and sublimate it a little better.

Some of these more self aware psychopaths might realize that more observant interviewers are on the lookout for excessive charm at interviews, and tone down their act a little, actually presenting as very balanced and down to earth. Therefore some may slip through the net a little, but in general psychopaths are still looking to make themselves stand out, so it’s a balancing act.

Even if they pass through the interview stage without raising red flags, proper vetting and reference checking will usually catch them, since psychopaths always leave a trail of destruction behind them in their personal and professional lives. But be aware that they can be very chameleonic and upgrade their act as needed to avoid being detected.

How A Psychopath Will Behave If They Get Into A Company

If a psychopath is either clever enough, or a company’s hiring practices lax enough, for them to actually pass all the recruitment stages and get into a company, then whether that company realizes it or not, it has a problem.

Once they get into a company, you find a psychopath acting in very predicable ways to create the connections necessary to solidify their power and position (psychopathy is a power-fixated personality style), and entrench themselves into the company to make them harder to remove.

Here are some things to look out for:

  • They’ll often look to charm their way in with superiors, not always their direct line manager, but often 2-3 or more levels up. They want to me mixing in with the “big shots” as soon as possible, getting in their good books and solidifying their position in the company.
  • They’ll be looking to move up the ladder very quickly, seeking more positions of power and control over people and resources, regardless of performance or capability.
  • Psychopaths are parasitic and tend actually to not be particularly good performers, instead looking to ensconce themselves within a group of genuine high performers and feed off their efforts instead.
  • Psychopaths are provocative and reaction seeking and will therefore often be constantly in conflict with people lower down, as well as will suppliers, regulators etc. Watch out for reports of this, with a high level of transfers, resignations etc, as well as regulatory and cost control issues.
  • Psychopaths also launch smear campaigns against those they dislike, envy or see as a threat. Therefore they’ll often launch smear campaigns to drive out your truly good workers (or your best people simply get tired of them and leave of their own accord). Therefore the quality of your workforce will often decline if psychopaths get into organizations, and are left to fester.

In general, a psychopath will in very short order “toxify” any environment they get into, including workplaces. There will be an increase in division, politics, lying, manipulation and other toxic traits once they get ensconced into an environment. It’s a bad scene whenever these people are tolerated in workplaces.

See our article for how psychopaths get ahead in workplaces for more on how a psychopath consolidates their position once they’re in a organization.

Recommended Reading

Essential reading on this topic of psychopaths in the workplace is Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits (see here for a link on our books page).

It is the definitive resources on how psychopaths behave to get into companies, and also once they’re there. Of particular interest related to this topic is the ongoing, bite-size chronological story they have at the end of each chapter, which gives you a clear lesson in all the things NOT to do when recruiting if you want to keep psychopaths out of your company.

The consequences of being taken in by glib, superficial charm, cutting corners with recruitment, and lack of proper boundaries and professional integrity with middle and upper management are all clearly laid out, showing how these failings allow psychopaths to get into companies, and then get ahead at the expense of your actual true performers.

It’s highly recommended reading to avoid hiring psychopaths, and dealing with them once they’re there.


I like to draw on my personal experience and research to write and raise awareness about pathological personalities in the modern world

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