Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Coping with 'toxic co-workers'

A new book offers survival tips

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OK, so who among us hasn't secretly suspected the boss is a psycho?

        Or thought the man/woman in the cubicle to the right is a borderline personality ready to love you/hate you/boil your pet bunny — all before the drama queen/king pushing the doughnut cart rolls around? Or are you worried that your co-workers gather around the water cooler every day to secretly plot against you? Paranoid, eh?

        A happy and supportive workplace can make the hours from 9 to 5 seem positively golden.

        But toss a personality-challenged co-worker into the mix, and those work hours can turn into torture. And that's not taking into account the potential for collateral damage, ranging from ulcers to job loss, litigation and outright violence.

  • Want to find out if you have a personality disorder (or make an educated guess about a co-worker)? Check out www.med.nyu.edu/Psych/screens/pds.html for diagnostic screenings on the 10 types of personality disorders.
  • Cast of toxic characters
        There are a lot of sick people out there, say New Jersey psychologists Neil J. Lavender and Alan A. Cavaiola.

        Many of them have jobs.

        Maybe they work with you.

        “We believe, as do a lot of other people, that they're kind of like a hidden cancer in businesses,” says Dr. Lavender, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J.

        He and Dr. Cavaiola have written a new book, Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job (New Harbinger Publications; $13.95), that provides a mini Psych 101 course for coping with the not-so-well-adjusted folk who inhabit the workplace right along with the rest of us. In telephone interviews, they elaborated on their published primer.

Unhealthy behaviors

        Every workplace has its share of odd ducks and office cranks. But Drs. Cavaiola and Lavender say people with psychological issues like narcissism and borderline personality disorder can make the workplace downright venomous.

        “Toxic” personalities are a fact of life in the workplace, says Dr. Lavender, and they turn up at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, from the new intern who hacks into corporate e-mail accounts to the CEO who just walked away with a golden parachute and all the cash in the employee pension fund.

        “Over the years, we've seen them at work and read about them in the newspaper just bringing corporations down, due to their own personality flaws,” he says.

        Personality disorders refer to a broad set of unhealthy and destructive behaviors — lying, avoiding social contact, sabotaging others — people use to cope with everyday stress. Because personality disorders are based in behavior, they're very hard to treat: First the person has to admit there's a problem, then he has to change.

        Most personality-disordered individuals “view their symptoms as their strengths,” says Dr. Cavaiola, so change doesn't come easily. He is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Monmouth University in Long Branch, N.J.

        But if you're working with the middle manager who makes everyone miss deadlines so she can double-check everything from the arithmetic in the annual report to the way the document is collated, you know there's a fine line between taking pride in your work and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

        People with personality disorders have problems dealing with everyday life — sometimes they can't hold jobs or maintain relationships — and their problems make problems for the rest of us, Dr. Lavender says. In the workplace, personality disorders can make the most well-oiled corporate machinery grind to a halt when employers realize they literally can't work with a personality-disordered co-worker or supervisor.

        Dr. Cavaiola talks about a woman with paranoid personality disorder who sued her employer because her co-workers weren't telling her dirty jokes. She argued they were deliberately leaving her out of the grapevine.

        And Dr. Lavender talks about a work site where he was called in to counsel employees. “It was a car dealership, and all the salesmen were anti-social personalities,” he says. “They had a lot of their older customers convinced that a rebate was something they had to pay extra to get the car.”

Spotting a disorder

        So how do you spot a personality disorder?

        It's easy, Dr. Lavender says. Just listen for the shouting, and watch your own responses.

        “If you see two staff members fighting consistently, that's a clue,” he says. “Usually there's a guy or a gal who seems to be in the middle of every brouhaha. They're always involved. They're the ones firing off the memos. They're the ones who are demanding time to meet with supervisors. And they all have hidden agendas that are relevant to their personality disorders.”

        Your response to a problem co-worker can also be a sign of trouble, Dr. Lavender says.

        “The first key is that you kind of become obsessed with this person. You start thinking about them night and day. They're in your dreams,” he says.

        “I think the second thing is — and this is the almost magical quality these people have — they bring out feelings in you that you've never had before and that are very uncharacteristic of you.

        “There are certain people that bring out the desire in people around them to beat these people up. So here you are, a peaceful kind of person and you are very charitable and loving and giving and you're talking to this person and getting nowhere and all of a sudden you want to hit them. You begin to feel horrible about yourself. How can I have these thoughts?”

Keys to coping

        Personality-disordered people aren't going to change, Dr. Cavaiola says, so the key to to coping is to change the way you respond to them.

        If you're dealing with a borderline or histrionic personality, don't respond to their dramatic stories or pleas for help, he says. If you're dealing with a psychopath, stay out of their way or risk becoming a target.

        And, looking on the bright side, personality disorders are well-suited to certain jobs, provided there's little stress involved.

        People with schizoidal tendencies — a disinterest in interacting with others and the inability to negotiate daily “give and take” activities — work very well with machinery and technology.

        Perfectionism, provided it's not carried to extremes, can be a good trait in accountants or engineers.

        And some psychopaths, with their “win at all costs” attitude and abundant charm, might make great salespeople, as long as they're not prone to violence, say both Drs. Lavender and Cavaiola.

        But jokes about used-car salesmen aside, there's a potential for tragedy where “toxic” co-workers dwell. Drs. Cavaiola and Lavender point to workplace shootings and other incidents of violence, as well as the scandals that arise when executives are caught stealing from the company.

        Human resources directors know there are problem employees out among the cubicle-dwellers and in the corner offices, but too few employers either screen for or try to remedy the headaches that personality-disordered workers can cause, Dr. Lavender and Cavaiola say.

        Background checks can provide good clues, they say, although smaller employers might not be able to afford them. Employers should also ask potential employees lots of “how” questions about interactions with co-workers and customers: How would you handle this situation?

        And letting the candidate's peers meet with him or her during interviews also can provide some idea of how he'll fit in with the group, they say.

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