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The Narcissist in The Workplace

Updated on July 4, 2016

We've all heard a lot about relationships with pathological narcissists, but what about when the narcissist is not your significant other? What about when it isn't even a friend? What about when it is someone at your job? This creates a dynamic that is very different from the family situation with a narcissist. You cannot break up with or divorce a co-worker. You cannot always simply avoid or ignore them. Sometimes you cannot get away from them at all, which is bad enough, but perhaps even worse than that is the fact that supervisors, HR departments and other co-workers just don't understand what they are dealing with. This can end up with the entire workplace being turned against the victim, because the victim has been labeled as overly-sensitive or as an outright liar thanks to the narcissist's smear campaigns. Victims often end up losing their jobs or quitting, but not before their reputations, careers and even their lives have been ruined.

How it Happens

Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about narcissists in the workplace is that often, even when people see that something isn't right, they don't speak up because they don't want to be involved. This is a shame and a mistake, because the narcissist is counting on the silence (and therefore implied consent) of others to get away with the terrible behavior. And too often, they get it.

Narcissists can target other co-workers for smear campaigns and abuse for several reasons. Abuse can happen when the narcissist manipulates others into doing their work for them, or take credit for things they did not do. They may mock or nitpick the ideas of other because they don't want the other person to be seen as possibly smarter or more creative. They may be petty or insubordinate. They may steal or do things purposely to annoy and disrupt others. They may refuse to do their share of the work or insist that they have done more than they actually did. They may be hostile or bitterly sarcastic toward people they feel don't show them enough "respect" (it's important to note that we are not talking about real respect, but the narcissist's idea of respect, which is actually more like kissing up to them). They are usually not good team players and may sulk or refuse to participate if their ideas are not used.

Smear campaigns work much the same way. A person may be targeted for a smear campaign for many reasons. For example, it could be because the narcissist wanted a particular position but it was given to someone else. That person then potentially becomes a target of the narcissist's anger and jealousy. It may be that the narcissist simply resents anyone who has power over them and endeavors to destroy a supervisor's reputation. Perhaps the narcissist does not like the opposite sex to be in authority positions. It may be that the narcissist is the one in power, such as in cases where the narcissist holds a supervisory position and mistreats those who rank beneath him or her simply because they can. It could even be something as little as a co-worker made a passing comment that the narcissist felt was embarrassing, disrespectful or just didn't like. Something that small is enough to trigger a smear campaign from a narcissist that can go on for months, even years. Because of a (real or perceived) slight or even just simple jealousy, the narcissist is now bound and determined to ruin the target's life.

It is important to note that though there are differences in the dynamic between workplace narcissists and those in other situations, the core behavior and drive is still the same. It should also be remembered that though we often encounter overt narcissists in the workplace who are supremely concerned with appearing to be the best at their job, covert narcissists target people at their workplaces, too. In the same way that a narcissistic partner or family member will allow the whole family - including themselves - to suffer in order to punish a loved one, narcissists in the workplace may have no problem with allowing their own job performance to suffer in order to make a co-worker look bad. When called on the carpet for it, these narcissists will simply claim it is the target's fault.

What it Looks Like

*The following is a real example of narcissistic harassment in the workplace. Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the victim, who gave permission to use this story.

Tony* is a covert ("helpless") narcissist who has worked at a job for 7 years. He often slacks on the job or manipulates other people into doing his work for him. He does this most often by claiming that he cannot do it for some reason. He sets situations up that make him look helpless, such as claiming he cannot tie his shoes and claiming that he has a disability, though he never says what it is. He was transferred to a new crew due to his poor performance and inability to get along with the people on his old crew. Since he has been transferred, he has been caught sleeping or otherwise failing to perform his job duties many times by his immediate supervisor, Leslie*. Because of this, Tony does not like Leslie. He makes inappropriate comments to her and around her, hoping to embarrass her or make her uncomfortable. He stares at her so intently that people in the same room are made to feel uneasy because of it. Tony repeatedly attempts to contact her outside of work and on her personal cellphone. When he is spoken to by supervisors about this, he agrees to stop. He then begins to continually call Leslie at work or seek her out, pulling her away from her job by claiming he needs help when he actually doesn't. When Leslie reports this, she is told that Tony needs to be able to speak with her because she is his immediate supervisor so there is nothing anybody can do. Leslie seeks mediation with Tony to find out what the problem is. He tells her in front of other supervisors that she does not deserve to have a position over him because he has a college degree and she is "not educated enough" to tell him what to do. He states flatly that he has a problem with any directives that come from her, regardless of what they are. Nothing is done about this. Tony is not disciplined and he continues his daily harassment. The supervisor says he will write Tony up for his poor performance but this never happens.

Tony then steps up his smear campaign against Leslie. He tells Leslie's supervisors and co-workers that Leslie bullies him and sets him up for failure. He claims that she is lying about his work performance because she does not like him and wants him to be fired. He says she is picking on him and that she has insulted his disability. When a new employee is hired or transferred, Tony immediately tries to turn them against Leslie. Co-workers have witnessed Tony's poor work performance, as well as his tirades against Leslie and many inappropriate comments to her. It is a running joke on the crew, but no one calls Tony on his behavior, nor do they report it to a supervisor. The majority of employees find Tony "creepy and unlikable but harmless." Supervisors are required to take Tony's complaints seriously and are being used by him to harass Leslie. Because Tony made the complaint that Leslie made fun of his disability, he is required to prove he has a disability with paperwork from a medical professional. He is unable to do so and the complaint is dropped. This coupled with his poor work performance is supposed to be enough grounds for termination, but it does not happen. On the rare occasions Tony is spoken to for failing to do his job, he claims that he was unable to do his job because Leslie is mean to him and this makes it so that he cannot concentrate. He is not disciplined. Instead, more mediation attempts with various supervisors are set up. Tony controls all of the conversations, turning the mediation attempts into hours-long therapy sessions where he complains about his personal problems and blames everything he is doing wrong on Leslie. Again, the supervisor says he will write Tony up for his blatant violations of operational procedures but does not. When Leslie insists that she cannot work with Tony anymore, she is told that she is no longer permitted to speak to him. However, she also remains his immediate supervisor and when she asks what she is supposed to do since she cannot speak to him, she is told to do her job. Tony is not disciplined, he is not told to stop his harassment, nor is he advised to stay away from Leslie.

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Leslie begins to loathe coming to work. She has trouble sleeping. She is having to defend herself against unfounded complaints and endure constant harassment nearly every day. Because of Tony's endless litany of complaints against Leslie, employees who do not have the opportunity to witness any of the behavior begin to believe there must be truth to what he is saying. This happens because they are unfamiliar with pathological narcissism and therefore cannot understand why someone would make these things up. Leslie consistently tries to educate co-workers and supervisors about what is happening but she is not taken seriously. She seeks mediation with Tony on several more occasions with other supervisors and employees in attendance and when that fails, she attempts to discipline him for his escalating behavior and consistently poor work performance. Every time she does this, Tony claims that it is Leslie who is harassing him. For the third time, the supervisor says he will write Tony up but does not. Because Leslie is attempting to discipline Tony and is insisting that she no longer wants to work with him because of his behavior, supervisors - including the supervisor who witnessed almost all of Tony's behavior first-hand - begin to feel sympathy for Tony. They chastise Leslie for not praising or supporting Tony enough and attempt to intervene on his behalf to get her to "lighten up" on Tony. New employees are unnecessarily confrontational and insubordinate to her because of the lies they have been told by Tony. The employees who know Tony's complaints are nothing but harassment have grown tired of hearing it and now just tune him out. Nobody defends Leslie or confronts Tony because they don't want to get involved or cost anybody their job, even though most of the co-workers are aware that Tony has targeted Leslie and is attempting to smear her.

A new supervisor is eventually brought in so that Leslie does not have to deal with Tony at all. This does not stop Tony from continuing to call and seek her out daily, nor does it stop him from continuing to smear her to others. Completely frustrated with the response from her supervisors, Leslie now begins to ignore Tony completely. As Leslie continues to ignore Tony, his harassment escalates even further. He begins claiming to co-workers that Leslie is sexually obsessed with him and soon he may have to change jobs because of it. As he knows she is not permitted to speak to him, he injects himself into all of her conversations with others in an attempt to get her attention but she continues to ignore him. The final straw comes when Leslie walks into her office to find Tony there. He suddenly falls to the floor in front of her, claiming he is ill and also may have hit his head earlier. Leslie calls the ambulance and his family, as required. After Tony is taken to the hospital and released with nothing wrong at all, Leslie tells her supervisor Tony's harassment has reached a dangerous point and that if Tony is not fired or removed from her crew, she is going to file a lawsuit. She is told again that he has not done anything he can be fired for. The supervisor who "forgot" to write Tony up three times insists he is on Leslie's side and that he is going to bat for her with the HR team, but that no one will listen to him. When Leslie speaks with HR herself to find out what the problem is, she is told that her supervisor reported a "personality conflict" between Leslie and Tony, and that they know nothing about anything else she is talking about. In desperation and at her wits' end with her immediate supervisor, Leslie finally files a formal complaint against Tony.

Why it Happens

As we can see from our example, there were many stages along the way where this harassment could have been stopped if the supervisors involved knew what they were dealing with. Instead, it was treated as a joke, something that was not a big deal and a person's career was nearly destroyed because of it. The victim's peace was definitely destroyed, and for far too long. Nobody should be put through something like this, much less for so long with no way to get out of it.

It is true that the victim in the above case should have done something sooner, but she was trying to follow a required chain of command procedure and was stonewalled by a supervisor who either did not recognize the gravity of the problem or did not care. This was compounded by the unwillingness of people to get involved, even though they knew what was happening. Others took up Tony's cause because they felt sorry for him. They became what are called "flying monkeys" for the narcissist. These are people the narcissist uses to attack the victim by proxy. They do the narcissist's bidding (usually unknowingly), like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. The supervisor especially fell into the role of counselor for Tony, allowing Tony to control all of the conversations and steer them away from himself and/or what he did wrong. This is a very common tactic with narcissists and its success in this situation is another result of not being familiar with narcissism, as well as being a poor supervisor in general.

The supervisor also began feeling sorry for Tony; he chastised the victim for not praising the narcissist enough - even though he actually witnessed the narcissist's poor job performance and his repeated unfounded attacks against the victim! This is very common and it is a testimony to what successful manipulators these people are. The supervisor knew what really happened; he saw it with his own eyes and yet somehow, he still ended up feeling sorry for the narcissist and championing the cause on the narcissist's behalf. This creates a situation where the victim has literally nowhere to turn. If the people who actually witness the events will not speak up or take your side, who will?

What You Can Do

The entire workplace becomes a battleground for the target of narcissistic abuse because nobody wants to get involved, or worse, they take the narcissist's side. People who are targeted by narcissists feel alone, alienated and ganged up on. This does not have to happen. You can learn how to spot narcissistic abuse. And if you see narcissistic abuse in the workplace, speak up. Narcissists count on the fact that nobody will say anything to them and every time they get away with it, the abuse gets worse. In our example, Tony's harassment of Leslie actually culminated in him physically throwing himself on the floor in front of her to get her attention. Who knows how far it would have gone? We would all want someone to speak up for us. We need to say something when we see something. We need to report these things and keep reporting them until something is done. It's time to stop letting these people ruin lives.

After all, next time it could be you.


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