Workplace psychopaths bring suffering for all

18:43, Oct 28 2012
Mary-Jane Thomas Work To Rule
Southland Times Work To Rule columnist Mary-Jane Thomas is a partner at Preston Russell Law.

This person psychologically destroys the people he works with to feed his need for a sense of power, control and domination over other people, writes Mary-Jane Thomas in Work to Rule.

This person doesn't suffer guilt or remorse. In fact, he enjoys the suffering of other people.

This person causes anxiety disorders and depression in fellow workers, or even his boss.

Working with this person is intolerable for victims.

Does this ring any bells? Well, you may just be working alongside, under, or for, a psychopath.

According to an Australian psychotherapist speaking to the Tasmanian Work, Health and Safety Conference, workplace psychopaths are more common than generally thought. Dr John Clarke consults with employers who have a psychopath working for them.


Apparently between 1 and 3 per cent of the adult population is a psychopath, which means you have a reasonably decent chance of having one in your workplace.

Clarke notes from a business point of view that psychopaths cause very high staff turnover rates, which is expensive to the organisation. So what do employers do?

Look at screening. I laughed about this, could you imagine doing a screening and when asked what you were looking for you answer “psychopathology”. Apparently psychopaths will often lie about their job experience so vigilance and screening while checking employees is important. Your best option is try to avoid them at all costs.

The second thing Clarke suggests is putting a management position strategy in place and perhaps not giving the psychopaths access to highly vulnerable people or victims. Read this to mean put the psychopath somewhere in an office by himself where he doesn't have the ability to terrorise the rest of the staff.

After I read this article, I googled and found that “workplace psychopath” is well documented.

The articles I read said you are wrong to think you will spot a workplace psychopath straight away because they can be charming and highly respected by their superiors. This is because they usually have drive, high levels of energy, are highly intelligent, and appear as natural leaders.

What makes workplace psychopaths different from ordinary horrible people is that they are manipulative, egocentric, callous, ruthless, and remorseless. They use “superficial charm”, intimidation and aggression to control others and satisfy their needs.

The paradox is that if you start to complain about their behaviour you may appear as an incompetent underachiever who cannot cope with stress or the demands of work.

Apparently bosses can also be targeted by workplace psychopaths who try to undermine them.

When I researched how fellow employees should deal with workplace psychopaths it was actually quite depressing. While some authors suggested documenting every incident and taking it to someone higher than your boss, they also said that you had better be prepared for consequences such as being managed out or forced out with redundancies. One writer simply said that based on the experience of others she would advise to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

Here are some key traits to help you work out whether you are working with a psychopath. Be honest, you were already thinking of at least one person at work who may be one. Lack of empathy.

Pathological lying.

Superficial charm.

Extremely manipulative and cunning.

Grandiose sense of self.

Complete absolute lack of remorse, shame or guilt.

Shallow, often non-genuine emotions.

Dominating, expect unconditional control.

Failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions.

Lack of realistic planning.

Employers - from an organisational perspective it is difficult to decide if a more senior manager is also a psychopath. Be careful because they appear to produce results and if the people suffering from the psychopath's behaviour believes that the person has a solid relationship with the next level up (that is, you) they will be reluctant to complain.

Look for subordinates leaving or seeking transfer or becoming disengaged.

Look for peers avoiding them. Also be aware that peers and subordinates cannot trust or respect them, they fear them, which leads to anger and other stress forms.

The scariest thing I read was that there had been no credible recorded success of a workplace psychopath being “cured”. You can't cure psychopathology.

So what does all this mean? It seems to me that if you have a workplace psychopath in your organisation, get rid of him as quickly as you can!

» Mary-Jane Thomas is a partner at Preston Russell Law. E-mail questions to

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