Edmonton - Even the politest people have called their boss a psycho over Friday beers or while lamenting a work problem to a spouse at dinner - few of us actually mean it.
And yet you just might be right. One person in 100 is a psychopath, meaning that they lack a moral compass, sense of responsibility or empathy (this is a personality disorder, not a mental illness). And although they are overrepresented in the prison system, according to research by American psychologist Dr. Paul Babiak, and his Canadian counterpart Dr. Robert Hare, psychopaths are also well-represented in corporate environments.
In their book, Snakes In Suits, Babiak and Hare detail how psychopaths manipulate work environments to get what they want - and how the rest of us can protect ourselves.
"These individuals have charisma, they have strong verbal skills and they're able to really weave a compelling story about themselves," says Babiak. "They're also quite good amateur psychologists, they can figure out quite easily the needs, desires, weaknesses, hot spots in individuals they deal with, so they tailor their conversation to begin to build what might be called emotional bonds with individuals."
So while you've been suspicious about the mailroom guy with the perma-frown and pit stains, it might be the debonair marketing guy down the hall who's manipulating things behind the scenes.
Babiak explains that while they're effective at manipulating people - telling lies, breaking down relationships between colleagues, etc. - psychopaths aren't smarter than the general population. They're simply driven exclusively by their own desires, and they've become skilled at pursuing what they want, whether that's someone else's job or personal amusement (psychopaths are easily bored and enjoy stirring the pot, says Babiak).
"When a psychopath meets a new person, someone they've never met before, they immediately assess their utility to them. 'Do they have some kind of technical skill that I might make use of later?' Usually to help get them to do their work for them. Or, 'Does this person have a connection I could take advantage of?' Or, even more base, 'Do they have money, power or sex that I want?,' " he says.
Psychopaths are also masters at breaking down communication between colleagues, in an effort to control the spread of information to their own personal advantage. They enjoy private meetings, secret get-togethers and malicious gossip.
As a new employee, you may be particularly vulnerable to a psychopath - particularly one who's well-established in an organization.
"Because if they've been there long enough, they've built up a network of alliances in the organization, and should the new person uncover them, or feel uncomfortable about them, or in the worst case be perceived as a rival, then the psychopath behind the scenes again will begin to pull strings, and soon the person is in trouble with their boss or the organization."
There isn't much a person can do to avoid a workplace with a psychopath, says Babiak. Even if the hiring manager is a psychopath, a would-be employee is usually too focused on their performance to notice anything fishy at an interview.
But if you do find yourself in a workplace where your boss or a colleague appears psychopathic, zip your lip. It's important to never label someone a psychopath.
"First of all, it pisses them off if they are a psychopath ... secondly, you're not a psychologist, so it's not appropriate for you to label someone," says Babiak.
And without subjecting someone to something like the B-Scan (a diagnostic tool Babiak and Hare are developing for the workplace), it's impossible to know for certain if someone is a psychopath.
However, there are things you can do. Develop a strong relationship with your boss and your boss's boss.
Be a "stellar performer" and keep samples of your work and performance reviews (personnel files are occasionally tampered with).
Document weird behaviour. Keep a daytimer at home where you log your boss's antics.
"Not that you're necessarily going to out them or be a whistle-blower, but there may be a time when your boss - if he or she is a psychopath - turns on you, and you're going to want to defend yourself."
Babiak also suggests reading about psychopathy, so "your antennae are tuned to the behaviour."
In the end, sometimes it's just best to move on. However, if you decide to be a whistle-blower and reveal some dodgy happenings at work, be cautious.
There's only a small risk of violence outside of work - generally corporate psychopaths prefer litigation - but keep your complaints anonymous so that "if you prevail and the psychopath is dealt with, they don't know who to go after on the outside."