Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beware 'snake in a suit'

Challenge for bosses and employees

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WE complain when it’s hot and we complain when it’s cold but believe me; a recent business trip to Kentucky showed me what stifling hot really means. I was literally suffocating; the air was so hot and so still that I couldn’t catch my breath. It’s a rare experience I’m sure but it did remind me of the one or two times when I’ve encountered a really bad boss situation in my own career. It simply all boils down to the stress that a boss can create.

Years have passed since my own experience and since then, I’ve seen and coached employees who have also felt a sense of suffocation at work. This occurred when they encountered what’s referred to as a "snake in a suit." A leader or any other employee for that matter who is perceived in that manner typically demonstrates psychopathic tendencies that at the very least will destroy the internal work environment. Usually, however, their tentacles will reach the broader world, as demonstrated by the many high-profile former leaders who are now serving prison sentences for embezzlement, fraud or stock manipulation.

Snakes in suits and/or seductive operational bullies (SOBs), as named by Dr. Manfred Kets de Vries, demonstrate a sense of superiority, grandiosity or entitlement. They live in the moment, are impulsive, and seem to lack any sense of personal insight. At the same time, they are very charming social manipulators as well as good communicators who consider themselves rising stars and, as such, they are able to create a good first impression by spinning the most believable tale. These individuals thrive on fast-paced, high-risk enterprises where there’s a potential for a power grab as well as significant financial reward.

The key challenge with individuals such as this is that they are good at reading and understanding others and will abuse and take advantage of relationships for their own benefit. When they sense a barrier, they think nothing of stepping on, crushing and suffocating anyone who stands in their way, including their own boss. In other words, they justify success at any cost.

My experience shows that by the time an employee who works for a male or female "snake in a suit" seeks help, they are feeling so victimized and so demoralized from their roller-coaster worklife that they are almost totally dysfunctional.

They are battered, bruised and stressed from being yelled at, bullied, harassed and taken advantage of.

In many cases, these individuals have taken steps to lay a complaint with their human resource manager and/or a more senior manager, only to be shut down by disbelief followed by inaction. Unfortunately, the complainer is then often perceived as the problem rather than the boss. Certainly a no-win situation for the employee!

At the same time, in many cases, these employees turn their anger inward and ask themselves, "What’s wrong with me?" instead of asking what’s wrong with the boss. So, how does an employee deal with this situation? What about the employer? From the employee perspective, dealing with a boss who is that so-called "snake in a suit" is extremely difficult, especially if one or more complaints have been filed and no action has been taken. At this point, if you haven’t done so already; start protecting yourself and look for another job. A key challenge for every employee in this situation, is maintaining self-esteem in an environment that is punishing and toxic. Reflect back to all of your current work and previous jobs and document what you have done well. Reflect on previous complements. Post them somewhere and give yourself a daily boost by reading them every day. Continue to do a good job in spite of the criticism. Copy and retain samples of your work.

Look around your current workplace and determine if there are opportunities to move to another role within the organization. Stretch yourself and look for jobs where you can learn new skills or build more depth to your level of expertise.

Monitor your stress and focus on those tried and true general rules of good health such as good sleep, exercise. Seek out someone to talk to, preferably a professional who can provide strategies and techniques for disentangling yourself from your situation.

Update your resumé and have it ready. Apply for positions but engage in due diligence regarding any new opportunities. You don’t want to get yourself into another bad situation. Prepare to respond to interview questions related to why you are contemplating leaving your current job. Stick with the benign response that you are leaving due to a different in leadership and management style difference and/or that you are seeking work in a more suitable work environment.

From the employer’s perspective, weeding out a "snake in a suit" starts right at the recruitment phase. Screen resumés carefully by looking for inconsistencies in job experience. Pay attention to potential exaggerations with respect to accomplishments and take notice of job tenure as these individuals tend to move frequently as they try to climb their perceived ladder of success.

Prepare your list of key competencies required for the job and then link this with in-depth behavioural interview questions and a multiple, structured approach that allows you to get a well rounded view of your candidates. Involve more people in the interview and selection process and don’t forget to ask for a variety of references. Propose the same questions to referees as the candidate, in order to provide verification of skills, expertise and experience.

Use all the online tools available to you in order to confirm if your candidate is the right fit. Undertake one or more psychometric assessment tools to learn more about personal character, communication, leadership style, and teamwork. Check out online candidate profiles and determine the nature of their informal communication.

Finally, if a "snake in a suit" has indeed been hired, you’ll find that it can take anywhere between six months to two years for behaviour to become problematic. Watch for the development of dysfunctional relationships within the unit being managed by the new incumbent, as well as unexpected turnover of well-respected employees.

If you are the employer and you are confronted with these challenging yet insidious relationships, be sure to take any and all complaints seriously. Investigate and get all the facts. Keep in mind that while profitability is important, your overall success will not last long if psychopathic employee behaviour is not dealt with.


Source: Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work, Paul Babiak, PhD and Robert D. Hard, Ph.D, 2006; The Psychopath in the C-Suite, Nicholas Bray, Insead Knowledge, Feb. 7, 2013.


Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 H1

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