Statistically-speaking, your CEO is difficult, challenging, demanding, at times unreasonable and also stands a reasonable chance of being part psychopath, so says a recent report, almost.

A new study of 261 senior professionals in the US has found that more than one in five (21%) can technically be classed as psychopaths, which is apparently the same ratio that you find in prisons.

According to researchers from Australia’s Bond University and the University of San Diego, CEOs with psychopathic traits “create chaos”, pit one person against another and “enjoy getting what they want at the expense of others”. More worryingly, the researchers suggest that ‘successful psychopaths’ may be tempted at some more or less unconscious level to adopt unethical and illegal practices and undermine colleagues.

So why recruit them? Because the line between superficially attractive business management attributes and those which border on the clinically psychopathic can be a very thin one.  We want our business leaders to be driven, committed, ambitious for success and willing to take a degree of risk to achieve it.  The gap to the less attractive behaviours associated with the condition is a small one.

The challenge for HR is to have in place both a robust recruitment process which can tell the difference and screens out candidates with materially undesirable traits and behaviours and equally important, internal mechanisms to deal swiftly and effectively with these behaviours should a “psychopath” actually be hired regardless.

So what should your approach be to the recruitment process and when your new CEO is, er, making his mark? Here are some practical tips to consider:

A)      External recruitment process

  1. Select your recruiter very carefully. Draw up suitable criteria to bench-mark potential firms against and stick to it. Only work with reputable search firms who have a track record of appointing the type of senior person you want to recruit. Insist on some sort of independent psychological profiling test or tests to help build a more rounded picture of candidates’ personalities than just a CV and an interview may provide.
  2. Invest time in the recruitment process. Make sure that candidates meet multiple members of staff. As a rule of thumb the combined recruitment process should take between 10-15 hours at CEO level. However, a note of caution; do not make the process unnecessarily lengthy or have them meet everyone from the cleaner upwards or frustrated candidates may walk away.
  3. If searching for a CEO, agree a detailed brief with the Board or owner and make sure the brief also captures desired personality traits, behaviours and competencies. Do not just focus on the technical ability of candidates or where they have worked previously as these details do not tell you enough about the behavioural aspects of a person. Maybe they are indeed a wiz at R & D or Finance, but does that give them the emotional depth, patience and resilience to manage across the entire business?
  4. Don’t regard references as merely a formality, especially if they bear the hallmarks of something crafted as part of a settlement agreement – “mutual consent”, “left to pursue other opportunities/to spend more time with family”, etc. No-one says these cannot be true, but the odds are against it!  Equally, if the former employer will not go beyond “He worked for us from A to B as C” for a senior executive (especially long-serving), you cannot fault its legal compliance but could usefully probe the backstory leading to so terse a comment.

B)      A CEO with behavioural problems

  1. If you report to the CEO you have an ideal opportunity to raise your concerns as part of your role as the organisation’s ‘honest broker’. These meetings should be documented but otherwise confidential, at least initially. This takes courage, as such an approach will not grant you the protections of whistleblowing and may alienate your line manager (the CEO) from the start.  If nervous about the CEO’s response, try raising the issue in confidence with a non-executive director or Chairman whose role it is to maintain Board standards.  Be aware also that those who may nod agreement when you talk about it privately with colleagues may say something different when grilled by the CEO him/herself.
  2. The Board should also be notified using evidence, not anecdotal hearsay (although you may have to rely on this source of information initially and in the absence of anything else). If there is a real problem it is possible the Board has some awareness of the situation already.
  3. If there is a picture of inappropriate behaviour emerging you will need to build a factual case. This could take months, so be prepared for the long haul (but NB two relevant considerations here – first, does the CEO have unfair dismissal protection and second, is he/she doing so much harm that it is worth the unfair dismissal exposure just to have him/her out of the business?).
  4. Consider if there are any interventions you can make in the form of the CEO’s development or creating Board away-days where the CEO’s behaviour can be observed without its being seen to be all about him/her.
  5. If you have access to Board evaluation documents (which normally also evaluate the Board member as well as the team), study them to ascertain if they highlight any comments from peers or the Chairman.
  6. In serious cases, take legal advice, if necessary independently, so that the company understands its legal obligations and can minimise cost should severance or a court case be necessary.