A terrible nightmare at work

Not only can office psychopaths make your life a living hell, they can be charming and know how to avoid detection.

If workplace bullying isn't enough of a problem for employers, what about dealing with the office psychopath?

They are different to bullies in that their behaviour is not always targeted at specific individuals.

Their behaviour can be more erratic but just as harmful to a workplace, warns Gemeah Howarth-Hockey, the chief clinical psychologist and general manager at Brisbane-based VOICE - Psychologists and Allied Professionals.

"The most common behaviours for people with these characteristics are that they tend to be quite charming to people but at the same time manipulative," Howarth-Hockey says.

"People may not actually realise that there is even a problem until they've been working with them for quite a few months."

"They can often be unpredictable so their behaviour can rapidly change."

"One minute they could be happy and five minutes later they could be fuming mad and screaming at people in the office for no apparent reason."

"Or it might just take a small thing to actually set them off."

But the office psychopath is also clever and cunning and does all he or she can to avoid being detected.

Howarth-Hockey says their actions are usually only done out of the sight of senior staff.

They also highlight their own work efforts so they are seen as a valued member of staff in the eyes of others.

"That two-faced behaviour is quite common," she says.

"These are people that quite often don't feel any guilt for their actions and can be spreading rumours or lies about colleagues to make other people look bad in an effort to make themselves look good."

If you even think of doing anything that could jeopardise their position, then be warned.

"If they feel that they are being threatened by people, they will do whatever they can to undermine those other people by acting in such a way as spreading rumours or lies about colleagues," she says.

Research shows office psychopaths can appear in any workplace at whatever level, from senior manager to office junior, in both the public and private sectors.

"As an employer, it can be really quite difficult to spot them because normally they are very, very good at getting the outcomes that you as an employer tend to rate people on," Howarth-Hockey says.

"They always achieve their key performance indicators."

"They'll go above and beyond to impress you, so it's very, very hard as an employer to see those things."

All offenders should be reported and dealt with, similar to workplace bullies, she says.

The challenge is to spot them at the recruitment stage, although Howarth-Hockey admits that can be difficult.

An interview is not enough.  Employers should consider some sort of psychological testing, such as those carried out by companies such as VOICE - Psychologists and Allied Professionals.

"There are built-in lie tests so they're often very hard to fake, and we can tell if people are trying to fake things," Howarth-Hockey says.

"But psych testing isn't the be all and end all."

"You always use that in combination with other recruitment methods, as well as the reference checks."

Those references should be thoroughly checked with some direct questions to previous employers, such as what were they like at work, why did they leave and would they ever consider re-hiring the person.

Ignoring the office psychopath can have a similar impact on a business as a workplace bully.

Other staff may leave, taking valuable skills and experience, leading to costs in new recruitment and training.

"It's estimated that every time you lose an employee, just from a low-level employee, it costs a company about $20,000 in terms of recruitment, training and then lost productivity from other staff members who are involved in training and so forth," Howarth-Hockey says.

"So it's very expensive, and it's in a business's interests to protect against it."

Common behaviours of office psychopaths

  • Taking credit for other people's ideas.
  • Setting others unachievable short deadlines.
  • Two-faced.
  • Unpredictable.
  • Manipulative but charming.
  • Spreading rumours and lies about colleagues.
  • Feeling no guilt or remorse for their behaviour.
  • Grandiose, narcissistic behaviour. They think that they are the best at everything.
  • Shallow emotions. Their mood can change very quickly, which leaves people feeling intimidated and uncertain.
  • Able to identify and play on a person's insecurities very well.
  • Often do a very good job of giving a good impression to those above them.
  • Know how to get great results but at the cost of isolating and belittling others.

What it feels like to work with an office psychopath

  • Totally manipulated.
  • Confused as to who you can trust.
  • Anxious about going to work each day.
  • Feeling that you can't please the person, no matter what you do.
  • Feeling like you have to "walk on egg shells" whenever you are near the person or interacting with them.
  • Feeling like your confidence levels have dropped.
  • Constantly feel uncertain about how to behave.
  • Questioning whether it is just you feeling distressed.