Charlatans: A risk for ethics in organisations

21 December 2021
Knowledge Base

by Caroline Raat

The days before Christmas are ideal for contemplating profound matters. Such as: do I always act with integrity? The truth: of course not. We are human beings. And, according to psychological literature, integrity – also known as Honesty-Humility on the Hexaco-scale – is not ‘all or nothing’1. Some people score high on this scale (not a 100%), some low, and most are ‘somewhere in-between’. Anyone can do the test, and it’s a sound reality check. Also, that psychology and personality are not to be morally judged, but that they can explain that people who score high on the H-scale are the lucky ones.

People of psychological integrity are not motivated by status or wealth, and they are by nature more honest. For them it does not take much will power to resist temptations like bribes. They do not feel the need to present themselves as a guru, boasting on experiences with certificates and ‘registrations’ that hardly mean anything, or – in a recent experience – do not even exist. Or they tell you they work with ‘famous people’, that they basically only exploit to pump up their image. People who score low(er than average) on the H-scale, are basically the same as the dark triad (toxic types). This sounds sinister, but these toxic types are ‘among us’, and they are good at hiding their true nature behind flowery language and a trustworthy appearance.

Compliance attracts toxic types too

The so called dirty dozen test is a concise way to measure these toxic traits2. On top of that, recent study show that ‘snakes in suits’ – high functioning psychopaths or psychopathic leaders – do not show the impulsivity and rage that their more traditional counterparts do. This makes them less likely to be overtly aggressive or seemingly ‘antisocial’. This makes them even more disastrous to organisations because they do not get exposed until it’s too late3. Quite often it takes a whistleblower to do that, and potential whistleblowers are easy targets for these toxic types. In fact, toxicity is probably one of the reasons why internal speak up regimes do not work.

People who score high on the H-scale, who at least try to be honest and unpretentious, are easy pray for toxic types. They tend to be trusting until they find out the hard way that they or other victims are being dragged into a scam or other ethical problem. Though it may seem contradictory, there is no reason to believe that toxic types refrain from entering the field of the law and compliance. According to research, these people are attracted to law (enforcement) and managerial positions4.

Protect yourself and your organisation against ‘Snakes in Ethics’

You may observe prototypical behaviour that may make you raise your guard. After some experiences one might learn some lessons, but in many cases we are not vigilant enough, simply because it is not a natural habit. Trusting on information they give, we start working with them and it can take years before finding out that he or she is a charlatan: for instance, advising the clients incorrectly, thus creating legal or other risks for them and then taking no responsibility for that.

After asking them about their knowledge and experience, they started referring to vague institutes that are supposedly registered and certified’. After some  – regretfully ex post –  third party due diligence in public records, the registry may not even exist and the certificate turns out to be ‘home-cooked’.  The institute turned out to be a simple SME. So much for ethical leadership. How big is the –yet uncovered – trail of destruction of these types?

Everyone can start a business, call himself an expert and even add some intriguing self-made titles behind the family name (not the formal academic ones, they are protected by law). But how can you protect yourself and the people that trust you against that? Researchers developed a list of behavioural features by toxic professionals5.

Fake reciprocity

Below I are the ones that I’ve seen in my working life, and here’s an extra observation. Normal people are by nature empathetic and helpful. Toxic types prey on that by creating reciprocity and a ‘special bond’. They ‘help you’, or they seemingly entrust you with ‘confidentialities’ about their own life, or ‘warnings’ about other people. The problem is that normal people do the same, and in normal cases this is a good thing; a matter of loyalty or friendship. This ‘trick’ makes you lower your guard so that you do not focus on other tell-tale signs. But here’s my 2021’s top-ten from the list:

  1. Malicious spreading of lies (intentionally deceitful)
  2. Frequently lie to push one’s own point
  3. Quick to blame others for mistakes or for incomplete work even though they are guilty
  4. Take credit for others’ accomplishments
  5. Steal and/or sabotages other persons’ work
  6. Refuse to take responsibility for misjudgements and/or errors
  7. Refuse or are reluctant to attend meetings with more than one person
  8. Develop new ideas without real follow-through
  9. Very self-centered and extremely egotistical (often conversation revolves around them – great deal of self-importance)
  10. Will do whatever it takes to close the deal (no regard for ethics or legality)

Do you feel a victim of this behaviour? Seek help and do not try to solve the problem on your own. Your ‘friend’ will seek next targets and start warning them about you…

[1] https:/



[4] K. Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success (2012)


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