You know at least one narcissist or gaslighter at your workplace. In my book Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free, I have devoted an entire chapter to how your workplace (and you) can be turned upside-down by these master manipulators. A narcissist or gaslighter is the coworker or boss who:
- Takes credit for your hard work
- Gives you backhanded compliments
- Ridicules you in front of your coworkers
- Blames everything on you
- Knows your weak spot and exploits it
- Actively tries to get you demoted or fired
- Lies to get ahead
- Seems to compete with everyone to be "the best" at work
- Spreads gossip about you, and denies doing it when you confront them
- Sabotages your work
- Pressures you to do something unethical
- Gets jealous of your accomplishments instead of congratulating you
Their modus operandi (MO) is the same — they want to look good and be seen as the best, even if it means bringing others down.
The narcissist is into anything that will make themselves look better. While everyone at work initially is in awe of or looks up to the narcissist, eventually they figure out the narcissist's game. Eventually, the narcissist runs out of people to sabotage or blame — until a new hire comes along. Everyone else has learned to distance themselves. By this point, the narcissist has already done a lot of damage.
So how do you protect yourself from a narcissist in your workplace? Here are some tips. (Note: If you have any questions about your legal rights in the workplace, consult an attorney.)
- Get everything in writing. If you are given verbal instructions at work, ask for them to be emailed to you. The best defense is to have documentation of what the narcissist said and when they said it. It's even better when it comes directly from a narcissist in email. You can also write down the narcissist's instructions and review your notes with them for accuracy. Consider keeping written documentation of issues with the narcissist — date and time of the event, what happened, and as much verbatim (exact) quotes as possible. If you need to consult with an attorney or management later on, you'll have everything already written down.
- Avoid a fight. The narcissist looks for ways to take you down — whether it's getting you demoted or fired. Avoid giving them that opportunity. Narcissists are famous for finding your weak spot and exploiting it. This means that they seem to have a special power in finding what other people are sensitive about. The then use this as ammunition against you. Let's say the narcissist knows you have kids (you've mentioned your kids to your coworkers and have pictures of them in your cubicle — normal things in the office). If the narcissist feels you have "injured" them in some way, they may make a comment just loud enough for you to hear, questioning your ability to be a good parent. This comment will have nothing to do with the issue at hand — the narcissist just knows that questioning your biggest role in life will push your buttons and set you off. Do not give them the satisfaction. Keep in mind this person is sick — and then with all your strength... walk away. Then document the date, time, location, and direct quotes of this interaction.
- Realize it's not personal. You may have the misfortune of being the narcissist's main target. The narcissist usually zeroes in on people who are performing better than them at work, or has a good set of friends in the workplace. The narcissist hates anyone that is perceived as "better" than them. Keep in mind that the narcissist's behavior towards you has nothing to do with you — it is all about them, and the deep insecurity they feel. Yes, that's right, the narcissist is deeply insecure — even though they appear to be the exact opposite. Realizing the narcissist's behavior is not a personal attack can make it easier to walk away.
- Don't give personal information or opinions to the narcissist. The narcissist is known for the classic, "What do you think of [coworker]?" Watch out for this trap. If you give any answer, the narcissist will twist what you said and tell that coworker. Even if you said "I think Sally is great," the narcissist may tell Sally that you think she is great, but that she needs a lot of improvement. The narcissist is an emotional vampire, and can sense when people have hit a rough spot. If you share personal information, like the fact you are going through a divorce, you can almost see the narcissist light up with this new information. Best defense? Change the subject. Walk away. Anything but give up information.
- Have a witness. If your narcissist coworker says they need to speak with you privately, consider bringing someone with you as a witness. Having a witness present may make the narcissist think twice about saying or doing something. Having a witness also means that if the narcissist tells your boss a lie about you or an interaction they had with you, you have someone that saw the events and can back you up.
- Avoid contact. This is an effective step, but can be one of the hardest to do. One of the best ways not to get sucked into the narcissist's games is to refuse to engage with them. Granted, they may be in the cubicle next to you. If you must interact, keep information to "just the facts." See number 4 on why you want to stick with just the facts and not give opinions. If working by the narcissist is affecting you, consider asking for a different location in the same building or floor. If you have any questions about your rights in this, consult an attorney.
- Know your legal rights. Narcissists will sometimes do just enough without it being illegal — they know very well what they are doing. However, many times they wind up crossing that legal line. It is important to know your legal rights in the workplace — especially if the narcissist is your boss. There is a power differential there — and the narcissist may use it to their advantage. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), generally an employer is not allowed to discriminate against you or treat you differently based on age (if you are 40 and older), race, beliefs, national origin, disability, genetic information, or sex (this includes your sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy). The EEOC also states that generally your employer is also not allowed to make your work conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would find it impossible to stay. The EEOC can give you more information about your rights. Rules can differ by employer.
Harassment is also a violation of your employee rights, according to the EEOC. This includes being harassed for reporting violations by your employer. You can find out more from the EEOC. The EEOC site also gives the steps they recommend if you feel your rights are being violated. In addition, there are labor attorneys with whom you can consult.
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