If you’re like most American workers, at some point in your career you’ve worked for a boss you didn’t get along with. You might joke with your friends or colleagues about your boss being a psychopath, but it can be a serious matter. In some cases, your supervisor just might have a deeper issue than being surly or difficult to work with.
But how can you tell the difference between a boss who is simply being difficult and a boss who might be a psychopath? For starters, it’s important to understand what the term means. Paul DePompo, psychologist and author of The Other Woman’s Affair, told The Cheat Sheet a psychopath and a sociopath are common terms for someone who has antisocial personality disorder.
The Cheat Sheet spoke with mental health professionals and workplace experts to help shed some light on the issue. Here are eight signs your boss might be a psychopath and what you can do about it.
1. Lack of empathy
- Example: Your mother died that morning and your boss still expects you to come to work.
Psychopathic bosses often exhibit an extreme lack of empathy. They’re unable to put themselves in your shoes and imagine how a situation might affect you. For example, you could be grieving a close relative’s loss, and your boss would still demand that you report to work during your regular time.
DePompo said psychopathic bosses will put their needs ahead of yours. “A psychopath is a sociopath ‘on crack,'” DePompo said. “They both lack empathy and want things to fit in their world. They are selfish and often see people as objects to meet their needs. The difference is that the psychopath has no cares, conscience, or guilt, and feels a sense of relief when they engage in their psychopathic ways.”
- Example: Your boss asks you to take on additional tasks and then gets angry or tries to make you feel guilty for saying no.
Psychopathic bosses might attempt to control you to get what they want. In her Psychology Today column, Abigail Brenner said manipulative people use deception to control others. “They will often take what you say and do and twist it around so that what you said and did becomes barely recognizable to you. They will attempt to confuse you, maybe even making you feel as if you’re crazy. They distort the truth and may resort to lying if it serves their end,” Brenner said.
3. Superficial charm
- Example: Your boss has a way of getting everyone to like him and do whatever he asks.
Does your supervisor seem to have an infinite amount of charisma? Do people seem to be drawn to your boss? In addition to some of the other signs, this could also be a possible sign of psychopathy. Be on guard if your supervisor displays over-the-top charm.
In their book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare discuss how psychopaths use charm in the workplace to navigate different social situations with ease. “They are masters of impression management; their insight into the psyche of others combined with a superficial — but convincing — verbal fluency allows them to change their situation skillfully as it suits the situation and their game plan,” the authors said.
- Example: Your supervisor constantly tells you how lucky you are to work for her.
Does your boss remind you what a great boss she is and how lucky you are to work for her? This in-your-face confidence might be more than just high self-esteem. DePompo said bosses who might be a psychopath will put others down while building themselves up. They will display a lack of regard for others and instead put the spotlight on themselves. Psychopaths tend to think they are special and deserve better treatment than others.
- Example: Your boss makes a big mistake at work and then blames you for it.
Playing a game of “pass the buck” happens every now and then in most office environments. However, when it comes to psychopathic supervisors, they might habitually shirk responsibility and look for others to take the blame when something goes wrong. In addition, those supervisors will often not show remorse if they’re identified as the real source of the problem.
- Example: Your boss steals money from the company and then denies it.
Honesty isn’t the best policy when it comes to psychopaths in the workplace. They will lie, cheat, and steal without a second thought. Psychopathic bosses will often lie about many things with ease and almost convince you that what they’re saying is true. Robert D. Hare, creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist said in a study that psychopaths “lie persistently and blatantly, and with considerably more panache than most people.”
7. Disregard for rules
- Example: Your boss takes company property home without permission.
Another possible sign is a disregard for the rules. Most employees make an effort to follow the rules of the office, but psychopaths don’t really care about rules, especially when they are in a position of authority. Robin Schwartz, a managing partner at MFG Jobs, said psychopathic bosses can be unethical.
A psychopath for a boss will be more willing to engage in behaviors that are unethical, illegal, or at least morally questionable. They might ‘have it out’ for a certain employee and purposely try to make that employee’s work life miserable. They may clearly discriminate against certain genders, ethnicities, or religions. Or they may even ignore the rules and policies of the company to benefit themselves.
- Example: Your boss decides to fire half the staff on a whim.
Sometimes it’s necessary to be able to think on your feet and quickly make a work decision. However, some decisions require a bit more thought. If your boss makes significant decisions without giving them much thought, this could be a red flag. You might think your boss flying by the seat of his pants is just a sign of creativity, but his impulsive nature could be a deeper problem.
What you can do
Talk to your boss. If you need to speak with human resources, one of the first things they will ask is whether you addressed the issue with your supervisor. If your boss has something that makes you uncomfortable, calmly let them know. But Ce Anderson, therapist and author of Love TAPS, said it’s important not to become overly emotional when relating to your supervisor. “It is important to separate your emotional brain from your rational brain and use what we call your wise mind. Your boss is not moved by tears nor emotional appeals and will likely view you as weak and easy prey,” Anderson said.
Document the behavior. Don’t let abusive behavior slide. Document any troubling behavior just in case you need to file a complaint with human resources. Save emails, and document conversations. Robby Slaughter, founder of AccelaWork, cautions employees not to contact human resources if their boss is simply annoying. “If your boss is irritable, disorganized, carefree, distracted, or plain annoying, don’t call HR. Work through the issues yourself. But [antisocial personality disorder] is a serious diagnosis. If you’re concerned that might be a possibility, get help,” Slaughter said.
Leave. If your boss’s behavior is significantly affecting your health, you’ll need to do something sooner rather than later. Anderson said sometimes leaving is your best option. “We spend more than one-third of our day at our place of employment. … One would want to consider searching for a new job or simply resigning if they notice any impairment in their physical or mental health, including elevated blood pressure, panic attacks, heart palpitations, loss of interest in their duties, calling out sick often, or sleep interruptions to name a few,” Anderson said.
Follow Sheiresa on Twitter @SheiresaNgo.
Follow The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!