Ever since Sue started work at the firm, everyone seemed more on edge, even the janitorial staff took cover when they saw her coming. Just her presence added a layer of intensity that wasn’t necessary. Co-workers paused when Sue entered the room as if waiting for an expectant hostile remark and then preparing to take cover. The tension at the firm was so thick, it could be cut with a knife.
Sue was told about her disagreeable behavior and combative approach but nothing changed. Instead, the drama intensified as she retaliated against anyone she perceived who might have spoken poorly of her. There were whispers, closed-door comments, inconsistencies in remarks, defensiveness and blame casting. Everyone saw the difficulty except Sue’s boss. This, unfortunately, made any effort to improve the situation temporary and shallow at best.
After several complaints made their way to Human Resources, Renee, the person who hired Sue began to review her file. There was nothing out of the ordinary about Sue. Her resume was solid, references were checked, her reviews seemed on-par, and she passed the standard employment exams. Sue did lack interpersonal and communication skills, but not in the extreme. So what is this? It might just be that Sue has a personality disorder which is typically not screened for in a job interview.
There are several types of personality disorders (PD): paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, anti-social, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive. Each has their own flare of ego-centered behavior, inflexibility, distortion, and impulse control. It can be seen in multiple environments beginning in adolescence. Thus the PD existed during the job interview, but it did not become apparent till hired. Here are some signs that a person at work might have a personality disorder.
- Feel Crazy. Employees around Sue felt like they are losing their mind. Often they can’t make sense or effectively communicate what is happening at work. Many times, Sue convinced the employee that they are the problem with a laundry list of faults, failures, and fears. As a result, the employee develops anxiety, appears distressed, is discouraged and even depressed.
- Dr. Jekel, Mr. Hyde. There is the version of self that Sue showed with co-workers and another with upper management and friends. While the disorder is pervasive (in every environment), it usually takes on a distinctive flair for different people. When Sue wants to impress someone, she is amazingly “on”. But once she becomes comfortable, the mask is removed and she is contrary.
- Walk on Eggshells. Employees felt like they are walking on eggshells around Sue trying to avoid her potential hot buttons. As a result, employees become good at reading the body language of Sue to see what kind of day it is going to be. After a while, the employees begin to enjoy when Sue is not at work because the atmosphere is lighter and less stressful.
- Resistant to Change. Sue will talk about change but what she really means is that others need to change to accommodate her. However, Sue doesn’t want the employees to develop healthy boundaries, she just wants more of what she wants from others. In addition, she tries to mold others into a more subordinate and subservient position so she has more influence to control.
- Lying to others. Sue gave her employees the impression that they are being lied to by her. While it may not be very evident, there is a pattern of futile exaggerations, avoidance of sensitive subjects, and omission of key information. Interestingly, Sue often projected these negative behaviors onto others in an effort to divert the negative attention away from her.
- Manipulative Behavior. The truth is constantly twisted by Sue’s distortion of reality. In order to get some compliance out of employees, Sue often resorted to some type of abusive and manipulative behavior. Typical ones include verbal assaults (“you are stupid”), twisting the truth (“that didn’t happen that way”), gaslighting (“you must be going crazy to think that”), intimidation (“you will do it my way or else”), coercion (“you need to do”), dichotomous thinking (“there’s my right way and your wrong way”), and withholding of money (“I control your paycheck”).
- Refuses to Accept Responsibility. If spoken at all, the words, “I’m sorry,” are usually followed by a qualifier like “but you…” There is no real acceptance of responsibility or accountability. It is always the employee’s fault at some level. Even when another co-worker points out an issue, that person becomes the latest target for Sue.
- Chaotic Environment. The amount of stress generated at work is completely unnecessary. Yet, Sue seemed to thrive in such environments. When there is little chaos, she tended to create something out of nothing just to complain about it. There is no lasting satisfaction. Temporary peace is achieved only when Sue would get her way.
- It’s all about them. It is about how Sue feels, what she thinks, and why she does what she does. The only time the conversation turns towards others is to accuse or cast blame. Their emotions, thoughts, actions, and perceptions are always right. This results in a superior attitude which makes a collaborative environment impossible.
This is not a healthy work environment; it is frustrating and often leads to employee turnover. Sue told Renee that she wanted a productive environment but her actions frequently created an unsafe environment for others to be transparent. After several attempts to encourage Sue to change with no real difference, Sue was asked to leave the firm.