Working with a Psychopath: How to Handle Mentally Ill Coworkers Who Seem Determined to Ruin Your Life

You know something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. You’ve dealt with unreasonable bosses and coworkers before. You’ve always found a way to remain professional and work around the challenges they present.

But this time you’re dealing with someone that seems malevolent. Every time you turn around you’re facing another challenge from this person that makes getting work done almost impossible. You keep wondering, “What’s different this time?”

Perhaps it is time to let yourself believe you may be dealing with a psychopath.

Some problems you can’t ignore.

People are diagnosed with a “personality disorder” when they have enduring behavior that appears to differ significantly from accepted social expectations about how people should treat one another. A personality disorder is not just a transient bad mood or a pattern of bad habits. They are the outward manifestation of a person’s difficulties and differences in cognition, emotional responses, interpersonal communication, and their ability to control their impulses.

If you are working with a psychopath, you are dealing with someone who has no desire to find a middle ground and a mutually satisfactory solution to problems to ensure that everyone is better off.  While you are looking for ways to cooperate, a psychopath is looking for ways to hurt and control you.

Most people are wired to identify with other humans. They share in the happiness, pain and sorrow of those around them. Hurting someone makes most of us feel bad. Helping someone makes us feel good.  The ability to feel empathy gives most people an active desire to find cooperative solutions to problems that make everyone happier and thus increase the well being of the whole community.

A psychopath doesn’t feel empathy and in fact they frequently enjoy the pain and discomfort of others. Psychologist Robert Hare, a leader in the field of studying psychopathy, has estimated that 1%-2% of all people are psychopaths. The longer you work and the more companies you work for the more likely you are to run into a psychopath.

Not everyone with Antisocial Personality Disorder is a Classic Psychopath.

Psychopaths need to be differentiated from those who are suffering from antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Someone suffering with ASPD may not be able to feel or express empathy for others and this may lead them to seem rude, selfish, insensitive and immoral.  But it is only when these traits are paired with an active desire to hurt people and a grandiose view of themselves and their own importance that someone can be called a classic psychopath.

In a 1990 study of Canadian prison inmates, 50%-80% of all inmates could be said to meet the qualifying characteristics of ASPD, but only 11%-25% of that number went on to meet the character criteria required to be considered classic psychopaths.

Not all psychopaths end up in prison. For example, a 2010 study by Babiak, Neumann, & Hare published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, found that close to 4% of the corporate professionals in the study had a PCL-R score of 30. PCL-R scores can vary from 0 to 40 and higher PCL-R scores reflect a closer match to the popular conception of the prototypical psychopath.

How do you know if you’re working with a Psychopath?

It is hard to know for sure whether or not you’re working with a psychopath unless you can get that difficult co-worker you’re struggling with the meet with a psychiatrist for a full examination.  You can, however, answer the following questions and determine whether or not they are exhibiting enough of the behaviors to convince you to take action.

Does your coworker routinely exhibit a lack of remorse or guilt when an action they’ve taken or an error they’ve made hurts someone else?

Are they habitual liars? Does it seem like they tell a lie even when telling the truth would be easier and make more sense?

Do they manufacture situations, and create conditions, that give them extraordinary control of people? Would you call them manipulative?

Do they seem callous and without empathy?

Do they fail to accept responsibility for their actions? Do they blame others for things they’ve done?

Do they get bored easily and the manufacture uncomfortable situations for others to alleviate that boredom? Do they seem to have a need for constant stimulation?

Are they impulsive? Do they frequently do things before they’ve considered the ramifications for themselves and others?

Do they have a history of juvenile delinquency or early behavior problems?

Do they have a grandiose sense of their own self worth? Do they feel they are simply better than others and thus are entitled to do what others are not allowed to do?

If you have answered “Yes” to most or all of these questions it is quite likely you are dealing with someone who could be considered a classic psychopath. If that is the case, you should begin taking immediate action to protect yourself.

What do you do?

The first step in any bad work relationship is usually to go to Human Resources to discuss the situation.

But before you schedule an appointment with HR, carefully document the behavior that makes you believe you are working with someone who is seriously mentally ill and who has a specific desire to harass and abuse you.

If there are emails, faxes or reports by third parties that substantiate your allegations be sure to include them. Along with this documentation provide a timeline that lists all the events where you’ve been the victim of your coworker’s abuse or manipulation, and provide a half page summary of your allegations as well.

If you providing this package of information to a HR representative when you make your complaint you make it easy for them to understand the full scope of what you’ve endured.  This is critical because any unsubstantiated allegations will have to be investigated thoroughly before they take action.

When there is no HR department to contact, or when HR refuses to act, you have some tough decisions to make.

You may want to begin the job search that will let you leave the psychopath behind. Executing this job search quickly, quietly and efficiently may allow you to make the transition to a better job before you get fired and before you endure many more weeks or months of abuse.

If you need references or recommendations in order to get a new job, identify people outside the company who can provide them for you. A key supplier, your counterpart at another company, a co-worker who has moved on can all provide adequate job references which obviate your need to get a references from a psychopathic boss.

Alternatively you may want to make an appointment with a lawyer who specializes in labor law to discuss your case. Most will give you a free consultation, and some will work with you on a contingency basis, to resolve a problem with a mentally ill boss.

Presenting a lawyer with complete documentation that substantiates the accusations you made, a timeline that reviews what has happened makes it easy for them to let you know if you have a case.

You should do something.

If you are working with a psychopath, you will not be able to ignore them because they do not want to be ignored. While you are in their crosshairs they will find a way to antagonize and attack you. They respond to weakness by increasing abuse.

That means you must come up with an effective response to a psychopath or you must find a way to get away from them. Failure to respond correctly is to sacrifice your own health and well being to the dangerous mental illness of another.


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