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How to Deal with Narcissists in the Workplace

As any employer knows, workplaces mix all kinds of personalities together. When hiring, employers hope to find the right personalities to catalyze success and productivity. Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works, and sometimes individuals who are disruptive, dysfunctional, or toxic can find their way into the workplace. Narcissists are an excellent example: their behavior can introduce toxicity into the work environment, significantly damage morale, and cause numerous headaches for business leaders. Here’s everything you need to know about narcissism in the workplace.

What do we mean by narcissism?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is characterized by inflated feelings of self-importance, a seemingly endless appetite for admiration and appreciation, and a lack of empathy. NPD is a spectrum disorder, meaning that symptoms can range from mild to severe. According to a 2008 epidemiological survey, the prevalence of lifetime NPD in the population is 6.2%.

How does narcissism impact the workplace?
Narcissists can have a toxic effect on work relationships. They may demean others to make themselves look better, take credit for others’ work while blaming others for problems. They may be competitive to the point of dysfunction, e.g. disrupting collaborative efforts or attempting to undermine other employees, even if it hurts the business as a whole. “They want to look good and be seen as the best, even if it means bringing others down,” says Stephanie Sirkis, Ph.D., author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People.

How can you avoid hiring narcissists in the first place?
To be clear, the point is not to avoid hiring someone just because they face mental health issues per se. The key is to avoid hiring someone whose behavior may end up being disruptive, toxic, or even dangerous. A careful screening process is imperative. Studiously checking references can be very helpful at this stage. Depending on the role and circumstances, you might consider having all applicants take a personality test. Just be mindful of nondiscrimination requirements. Finally, always consider the whole person in the hiring decision, e.g., cultural fit is as important as past work achievements.

How should you manage employees who may have NPD?
Monitor them closely, stay on top of their behavior, and respond to incidents promptly. Be wary of inadvertently rewarding (and thus incentivizing) bad behavior. Document everything. Meanwhile, foster a sense of teamwork in the workplace; you want all employees to feel supported and that they can approach leaders in the organization with any issues.

How can you terminate employees who may have NPD?
In the end, you may have no choice but to terminate. Just make sure your reasons for termination have been carefully documented and be prepared for a potential wrongful termination lawsuit. It may be worth it, though: researchers with Harvard Business School found that “it saves a company approximately $5,300 to hire a superstar employee, saves a company approximately $12,500 to avoid a toxic employee.”


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