We Never Really Know

The front pages of newspapers teach us all too often that the "nice guy" we thought so much of actually wasn't so nice. Take the case of Penn State coach, Jerry Sandusky or financial investor and swindler, Bernard Madoff. Two individuals who respectively went from revered university coach and investment guru to criminal pariahs. But how did they become that way? Was it because of work or were they always that way?

What experience has taught me and nanny cameras confirm, is that we only think we truly know people. Unfortunately, what some people do when they believe no one is looking often reveals their true character. This brings me back to the question above, "were they always like this or did they become this way?" In my experience, it is more likely that these individuals were always like this.

We know from the research that predators (sociopaths, anti-social personalities, psychopaths, those who habitually take advantage of others) are unlikely to ever change. They take advantage of the world around them according to their needs, preferences and desires.

In fact, they join organizations and clubs precisely because it gives them a strategic advantage in gaining access to victims -- from there they can better transact their misdeeds. It is not so much that a job or occupation makes them this way, but, rather, they join or use these organizations precisely because they can take advantage of others for their own sordid gain. From studying, writing about and talking to predators over the years, here are a few reasons why they chose their profession:

1. Organizations provide a convenient infrastructure from which a predator can prey on others for financial gain or to otherwise exploit others (sexually, mentally, physically).

2. Membership in a legitimate institution, be it a club, a branch of the military, a corporation, or a religious organization, gives legitimacy. We are more respectful and trusting when we are told a certain person is a coach, VP or head of sales for XYZ company rather than just a stranger off the street.

3. Organizations can give predators ready and easy access to an identifiable pool of individuals or potential victims. A cable television installer, for instance, can gain access to a home, assess the level of security, appraise what is of value, or determine if the person lives alone and when are the best times they will be absent.

4. Organizations give predators access to potential victims they might otherwise not come into contact with or might have to spend a lot of time finding. Predators may even find potential victims conveniently working two cubicles away. These are the ones that want you to invest with them or buy things from their pyramid scheme.

5. Alliances are easy to make in an organization. These can serve to provide the predator information about exploitable weaknesses of others, as well as proprietary, personal or sensitive data otherwise difficult to obtain. Here, predators take advantage of the unwitting to give them access to victims or information.

6. Colleagues within an organization can serve to warn or protect the predator as a result of conspiratorial alliances or because they have a fiduciary or personal interest in those predatory practices (predatory accountants protecting predatory CEOs -- think of ENRON here).

7. Some organizations can be very financially rewarding for predators where they can exercise their anti-social traits (e.g., lack of conscience, indifference to others, bullying, cavalier attitudes, back stabbing, theft, embezzlement, narcissism, sense of entitlement). Often malignant boards of directors, interested only in profits, reward these predators and their anti-social acts for doing the kinds of things they can't bring themselves to do but appreciate. It is a toxic, but profitable, symbiotic relationship.

8. Organizations often try to "handle" negative things in-house to avoid bad publicity, so they are reluctant to report even gross criminal misconduct on the part of predators in their midst; preferring to transfer them, fire them or have them leave quietly. For the predator, this is perfect. They can just start all over again somewhere else.

9. Organizations are sometimes structured in such a way that the predator merely has to take advantage of existing weaknesses in the organization in order to profit -- as we saw with the banking debacle of 2008.

10. Predators know that in civil lawsuits, the victims will go after the corporation with the deeper pockets rather than go after individuals with limited financial resources. So they try to join organizations that can serve to insulate them (finance, banking, insurance, investments, etc).

There are a host of reasons why predators join organizations and if you think like a predator, it makes perfect sense. A predator that likes children will pursue jobs where they have ready access (day care, coaching, baby sitting, teaching, religious leader, etc.). If they want to make money then they devise illicit schemes, as in the case of Madoff within financial services (banking, investment, fund management, etc.). And if they are in it for power: politics, law enforcement, religious leader, law, military, among many others, serves well.

When they were digging up the 26th body from underneath the home of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, his neighbor was asked what Gacy was like. The neighbor's reply, as relayed to me by an investigator present, captures it all, "He's a great guy, as far as I know -- he hires himself out as a clown for children's parties." This is a reminder -- we never truly know most of the people around us.