Workplace Psychopath or Sociopath? Part 1


There has been lot of press recently about workplace psychopaths and sociopaths. In this blog I will help you sort out the difference.

The terms psychopath and sociopath are actually psychological/clinic terms described in detail in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or Mental Disorders (DSMV5) that usually refer to criminology.

But somehow these terms have become part of the HR domain as a reference to ‘difficult’ employees who are high maintenance and hard to work with who may or may not exhibit anti-social behaviour. These are labelled ‘workplace psychopaths’.

I would emphasise that only a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose someone as a sociopath or psychopath so please be very aware of labelling anyone based on the strength of a ‘label’ that has been popularised.

According to the DSMV5 they both:

  • Have difficulty with empathy for others
  • They often ignore social behaviour norms
  • They often have a flagrant disregard for others and typically perceive others as inferior and not worthy of regard.
  • They are typically never to blame for anything – it is always someone else fault
  • They can break laws
  • They can be aggressive and violent.

This can describe anyone and we all exhibit these traits to some degree, but a qualified psychologist can determine if this is a permanent personality disorder.

Sociopaths tend to exhibit emotions that can be described as extremes – they can be volatile and aggressive or moody and anxious. Generally, they will not bond well with anyone and overall, you start to have concerns about them very early on.

Psychopaths are harder to detect unless you know what to look for, but they leave clues.

They will usually appear as highly effective, intelligent, charming and even charismatic. But they are extremely manipulative. They are able to gain people’s trust quickly and they usually ‘sound’ very convincing and ethical. But they are very strategic and they tend to pick on the weaker staff – anyone not in a position of power.

Invariably, it is revealed they are con artists. They may have a trail of ‘cons’ but often, ironically, they are very adept at using the law to cover their trails. As an example, they may use a discrimination legislation to exit a job – with a payout – because it is a LOT cheaper to pay them out than fight them legally. In the process they will then ensure some covenant stops a past employer from discussing the case.

The early signs are murmurings from junior staff or staff attrition at junior levels.

Please note this is incredibly general but the litmus test is always how you feel about them. It starts wondering how you can better handle them. If you are thinking about how to handle someone, chances are you are dealing with a ‘workplace psychopath’.

A definite indicator is hard evidence that you have been victimised … that somehow you can’t use.

This is such an interesting topic and in the next few blogs I will be exploring this in more detail.


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