Many CEOs' secret weapon: psychopathy

I don’t know whether Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is a true psychopath or only acting like one, but I’m betting his rise to power and wealth was facilitated by his primary job qualification: his lack of a conscience or concern for anyone but himself:

Blankenship, his opponents and supporters agree, simply has to get his way. Nothing illustrates this better than his fight with a maid earning $8.86 an hour. In 2001, Deborah May started working for Mate Creek Security, a company “related to Massey Energy,” according to court documents. When Mate Creek assigned her to work for Blankenship, according to the documents, May cleaned his three-story home, shopped, and did laundry. By 2005 she was also cleaning a bus, two cabins, and a mansion in Kentucky. She received one 30 cents hourly raise. After Blankenship said she would also have to care for a “German police dog,” according to the documents, she quit.

In November 2005, May applied for unemployment benefits, saying she was forced to leave the job. The state denied her claim, concluding she quit for no reason. In June 2008, West Virginia’s top court reversed the state’s denial of benefits. Two of the court’s justices said “the unrefuted evidence” showed that Blankenship “physically grabbed” the maid, threw food after she brought back the wrong fast-food order, and tore a tie rack and coat hanger out of a closet after she forgot to leave the hanger out for his coat. “This shocking conduct” showed May was in effect fired because she felt compelled to quit, the justices said. They said the conduct was “reminiscent of slavery and is an affront to common decency.”

When you don’t care about anyone else in the world, it’s easy — reportedly even pleasurable — to exploit people by union busting, telling Federal Government regulators to take a flying leap over dangerous conditions in your mines, bribing Supreme Court justices, and scaring your minimum wage maid into abject submission.

By law, corporate executives are required to care only about shareholder profit (except to the extent they’re constrained by other laws). And many corporations act that way, exploiting employees, ripping off customers, cheating on taxes, and ruining the environment on their way to higher profits. Blankenship’s greed has killed employees before:

In January 2006 a fire broke out in Massey’s Alma No. 1 mine, 60 miles from Charleston, W. Va. Two miners died and nine were hurt. The widows sued Blankenship, Massey, and Aracoma, the affiliate that runs the mine. Citing a memo Blankenship sent his mine superintendents in October 2005, the widows alleged he was personally responsible for safety problems. In the memo, he urged superintendents to ignore orders to do anything other than “run coal.” This included working on construction projects involving “overcasts,” ventilation controls that help keep the mines safe. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills,” Blankenship wrote.

It’s easier for psychopaths to (mis)behave this way because they not only don’t find inflicting pain and death on others abhorrent but even derive sick pleasure from it. Sadly, ordinary non-psychopathic humans can behave similarly after becoming desensitized to others' suffering.

For more information on psychopathy, visit Robert Hare’s website.

Posted by James on Monday, April 19, 2010