If you’ve ever been hired by a company with fifteen or more employees, you’ve seen the training videos on harassment in the workplace.  They drone on about dealing with unwanted sexual advances or comments that make you uncomfortable and what to do if you fear retaliation. These training materials are helpful in only the most overt of situations, though. Today we’re going to discuss a workplace abuser who may be victimizing you without your knowledge – the narcissist.

I’ll admit I have a pony in this race. I was a victim of a workplace narcissist. We’re used to referring to workplace violations with words such as “bully,” “harassment,” and “discrimination”.  I didn’t know workplace abuse could also look like an emotionally abusive romantic relationship. So I’m going to help you recognize a narcissist before they break you down into someone you don’t recognize.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Here’s the technical, medical stuff: according to the criteria set forth by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), what we colloquially call “narcissism” is officially called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and is one of ten specific types of personality disorders.  There is a huge difference between someone with NPD and, say, your coworker who just nailed a pitch and is peacocking around the office (cue Demi Lovato’s “Confident”).

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, the problem of narcissists in the workplace, especially in positions of power, is “extremely widespread.”

“I hear of it in just about every setting you can imagine – education, health care, tech, media, entertainment, retail, food and beverage, manufacturing, corporate, banking, law, financial, non-profit – everywhere,” she revealed to me in an email correspondence. “There are some estimates that 5-21% of CEOs are psychopaths – that number does not surprise me.” In an interview on the YouTube Channel, MedCircle, titled Narcissist, Psychopath, or Sociopath: How to Spot the Differences, Dr. Ramani states, “Every psychopath is narcissistic; not all narcissists are psychopaths.” 

I’ll be quoting Dr. Ramani extensively throughout this article because she is a foremost expert in narcissism and was fantastic enough to take time out of her busy schedule to respond to my questions.

It Can Make You Sick – Yes, Physically

Speaking of the harmful effects of workplace narcissists, Dr Ramani has this warning: “People do not recognize that being in the purview of a toxic person such as a narcissist can literally make you sick … Once you experience these patterns of invalidation and start feeling sick, it’s already too late. At a minimum, the person needs to get mental health services or consultation, and in an ideal world can step away from the situation.”

Unfortunately, she goes on to say, “Typically most HR departments can’t or don’t do much to address these situations.”

Does Size Matter?

Hearing that so many CEOs are thought to be psychopaths, I wondered if company size could affect the impact of having a supervisor with NPD. As I mentioned in the beginning, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requirement to have a corporate harassment policy only applies to companies with more than fifteen employees.  I asked Dr. Ramani about this.

“In a smaller company the effects of a narcissistic boss can be more potent because there are fewer people on whom the narcissist can deflect blame or be distracted by. So you are more likely to be tormented by the narcissist because of the intensity of the contact and the need to have to interact with the narcissist directly more often.” 

“In larger organizations, there may be more eyes on the narcissist, so you may have other colleagues that were harmed by this person and benefit from the ability to talk about it with someone (something that may not happen as easily in a smaller company). However, narcissists are also masterful at scapegoating, creating chaos, and splitting – favoring some employees, victimizing others, and further confusing the system and getting more power through divisiveness – that is more likely to happen in a large organization where there are more people and often higher stakes.”

Red Flags

Ok, we’re all appropriately terrified of working with or for someone with NPD. What can we do?  To start, here are some red flags to watch for when you’re interviewing for a new job, according to Dr. Ramani:

  • Being interrupted
  • Arrogance
  • Any kind of comments that reveal poor boundaries, even if they seem to be in jest
  • Disrespecting you and your time by making it clear that the interview takes place at their command, e.g. rescheduling many times or showing up late with no apology or explanation
  • Poor eye contact can indicate that they won’t connect with you because they just don’t care

In general, anything that comes across as dismissive or rude—use your instincts. Be able and willing to walk away from a situation that doesn’t feel right.

Getting Out

Let’s say none of those red flags waved at you and you’re now stuck either working with or for a narcissist.  Maybe you’re like I was and you absolutely cannot leave your job. What can you do? Dr Ramani advises: 

  • Document EVERYTHING. Save every email, text message, phone record, and voicemail. Some of these are likely on a company server, so make sure you print it out in case you need to leave the company abruptly.  
  • Seek out therapy.  A good therapist (preferably one with expertise in these kinds of personality patterns or in workplace abuse) gives you a confidential, safe space to discuss these issues and work on coping resources. 
  • Maintain realistic expectations. Your narcissistic boss is not going to change, so don’t waste energy on that. It also helps preserve you and leaves you feeling less surprised when this person behaves badly (again).
  • Find allies. Tread lightly here because narcissistic bosses tend to have spies and minions everywhere. But allies can make it bearable and may also make your case stronger if it proceeds to more formal action.
  • Don’t personalize it.  It feels personal, but narcissists are equal opportunity jerks. It’s not you, it’s anyone they have power over. 
  • Avoid being alone with this person. Ask if meetings can be recorded or take notes and then send those notes after the meeting so they serve as a running record. 
  • Stay off social media. It can be tempting to throw shade on your situation or this person on social media – don’t do it.  It can come back to bite you and is likely a violation of your employer’s policies. If they behave badly on social media and it involves you, document it but do not engage. 
  • Craft an escape plan. The narcissist will likely outlast you, especially if they bring fame or money to an organization.  (Nobody wants to kill the golden goose). Sometimes just daydreaming about leaving and making some tentative explorations can keep you sane—and may also take root so you can finally leave.

If any of this resonates with you, take action. What’s happening to you is not acceptable. Follow the steps outlined and get yourself some help.  When you get to the “Find Allies” step, consider me an ally. There are also Facebook groups dedicated to helping you escape and recover.

You’re now armed with the power to be an advocate for your own safety. Go out and be awesome!

The majority of information in this article comes from an email interview conducted with Dr Ramani Durvasula. You can find information, all her works, and contact information at www.doctor-ramani.com. Her most recent book, Don’t You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility,” is available on Amazon.

Cat Jones

Cat (she/her) has spent the past two years as the Director of Operations and human embodiment of Equality House. When not annoying Kansans with her queer-rights advocacy, she spends her free time playing with her Goldendoodle, Ike, her neurotic cat, Goku, and her husband, Nathan, who keeps trying to explain to her why the Power Rangers are super awesome. She knows way too much about true crime and her family is sick of hearing about it.