Quiz: Can You Spot a Toxic Coworker?

Most employees -- whether they work in an office or a coalmine -- have at least one horror story about a coworker or supervisor. There's the boss who routinely demeans her employees, or the coworker who feels no guilt about going on vacation before completing his share of a project. In fact, according to one study, eight out of 10 workers in America have someone at work who routinely makes life stressful for them. Many interactions are normal, of course -- it's rare that a difficult coworker will actually have a personality disorder. And many types of mental disorders, such as depression, are eminently treatable and shouldn't cause problems at work. But if you have a coworker who can't empathize with others, abuses power and ignores boundaries, creates constant turmoil, is rigid and inflexible, and appears to have a hidden agenda, you may be dealing with someone who has a personality disorder. Can you spot the warning signs?

1. A coworker with narcissistic personality disorder may often:

a. Expect continual admiration and special treatment

b. Flout company rules

c. Be controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, and intolerant of others' views

d. View constructive criticism as severely humiliating

e. All of the above

2. Which of the following is NOT true of people with borderline personality disorder?

a. They may ask you to lie to bail them out of trouble.

b. They're constantly in conflict with coworkers.

c. They withdraw from contact with coworkers.

d. They routinely seem to be seething with anger.

e. They frequently explode in rage.

3. The best way to deal with a boss who has obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is to work overtime in order to show you're a team player.

True

False

4. A coworker who prefers to work alone and avoids all social contact may be:

a. A person with schizoid personality disorder

b. An individual with avoidant personality disorder

c. A passive-aggressive individual

d. A narcissist

e. A or B

5. Which of the following traits could be characteristic of a coworker with antisocial personality disorder?

a. Preying on weak or passive coworkers

b. Squandering company funds on personal expenses

c. Showing no empathy or

d. Being manipulative, exploitative, reckless, deceitful, insincere, self-promoting, and superficially charming

e. All of the above

Answers

1. A coworker with narcissistic personality disorder is often capable of:

The correct answer is: e. All of the above

Many narcissists are attractive and charismatic people who make good first impressions. But don't expect a narcissist to behave in a way that benefits anyone but himself. Narcissists have a firm belief that they are special and don't have to follow rules. They often have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, require excessive admiration, have an unreasonable sense of entitlement, and are envious, arrogant, and haughty. If you have a narcissistic coworker, avoid wasting time trying to get her to change. If you're a boss, try giving positive feedback focusing on strengths that will encourage such an employee to become a team player.

2. Which of the following is NOT true of people with borderline personality disorder?

The correct answer is: c. They withdraw from contact with coworkers.

Unfortunately, people with borderline personality disorders are all too often fighting with people at work. They usually have a stormy personal life as well. Try to look behind their anger and exercise compassion: Many borderline personalities have a history of abuse. However, trying to befriend such an individual could put you at risk. If this person is your boss, don't internalize her chaos and anger. Set your own boundaries for what you can deal with. If she doesn't show signs of moving on, you may want to.

3. The best way to deal with a boss who has obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is to work overtime in order to show you're a team player. True or false?

The correct answer is: False

It's fruitless to get into a big debate with this kind of boss about the fairness of her expectations. Simply be realistic about the amount of work you are able to do in an eight-hour day and tell her what's possible. Ask her what projects she would like prioritized, and send a follow-up memo afterwards summarizing the conversation. And set firm boundaries: This manager will have no idea that you're overloaded because she expects that you will be willing to take on as much as she does. Even if you're resentful of her unrelenting demands, it's best to present yourself as part of the team. Put in a little overtime every once in a while and make sure your boss knows, but don't come in late the next day or take a long lunch. She may not notice how hard you work, but she will certainly be watching the clock.

4. A coworker who prefers to work alone and avoids all social contact may be:

The correct answer is: e. A or B (schizoid personality disorder or avoidant personality disorder)

A worker who's avoidant may not be much of a problem -- except when there are certain jobs he or she wants to pass the buck on. These workers don't like confronting unpleasant situations. On the other hand, a schizoid person may choose not to engage in company events and friendships because she's painfully shy.

5. Which of the following traits could be characteristic of a coworker with antisocial personality disorder?

The correct answer is: e. All of the above

The antisocial personality has also been called a sociopath, a subcriminal psychopath, and -- in corporate circles -- a white-collar psychopath. Although some people equate the word "antisocial" with withdrawn, many people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder are actually gregarious, dynamic, and outgoing, with a ready smile and polished social skills -- traits that allow them to easily climb the corporate ladder. But because they lack a conscience, they are also generally cunning, deceitful, even Machiavellian.

In addition to the traits mentioned above, they are inordinately selfish, manipulative, callous, and lacking in empathy. You may find this person lying frequently, shirking assignments, stealing and taking credit for your work, using something you've said in private against you, or embezzling company funds. If you're unfortunate enough to work with such an individual, watch your back. Don't confide in this coworker or reveal any personal information. Lock your drawers. If necessary, document any illegal or unethical activities. You may also want to enlist the aid of someone in your organization you can trust, in case you need support or validation later on. You are dealing with a ruthless individual.

References

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), 4th Edition, American Psychiatric Association, 2002.

Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job. Alan A. Cavaiola, PhD, and Neil J. Lavender, PhD, New Harbinger Publications, 2000.

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