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Identifying the work place psychopath

By Malcolm King - posted Tuesday, 26 June 2007

One of the anachronisms of the 21st century is that although we pride ourselves on our modern institutions, in many Australian workplaces the Dickensian bully still strides the corridors of power.

Workplace bullies are not an isolated phenomenon. When John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation was introduced into parliament in 2005, the Prime Minister suggested there was one in every office.

“If you’re living in a small business environment, you’ve got, say, five or eight people in an office or a workshop, and one of them is a pain in the neck and is making life difficult for everybody else, it’s workers in many cases more than the boss that would like to see the back of him,” Prime Minister Howard said.


This article goes further than the “pain in the neck" definition of the workplace bully. It examines the bully as psychopath with their extraordinary ability to adapt to change. It is an irony that the complex psychological profiles of these individuals share many of the traits of the corporate “go-getters“ who the media glorifies.

There have been many typologies of the workplace psychopath but most include these features:

  • authoritative, aggressive and dominating;
  • fearless and shameless;
  • devoid of empathy or remorse;
  • manipulative and deceptive;
  • impulsive, chaotic or stimulus seeking; and
  • a master of imitation and mimicry. 

One key criterion that needs to be included in any typology is that they lack self knowledge. In short, and to paraphrase the Bible, “they know not what they do". This doesn’t mean that they are ignorant. Far from it. Their actions are often highly adaptive, self serving and intelligent. For them, the means justify the ends and those means include isolation, humiliation and psychological torture of their staff.

I am not suggesting that these work place "aliens" are a new species. I am suggesting that they are coming in to their own as our public and private institutions, both great and small, are buffeted by the new IR legislation.

The rise of casual or temporary work, the declining power of unions and a more deregulated workforce have helped create an environment where these individuals are less constrained by the demonstrated ethical behaviour of their more senior peers.


Many years ago I worked in an advertising agency that had appointed an accountant (Dr X) as the new managing director. In his previous job he had five staff and 10 clients. Now, working with us, he had 120 staff and 30 major clients. Still though, as any one who has worked in advertising knows, expect the unexpected. It’s a robust and competitive environment.

Dr X seemed like a nice bloke and his ideas on revamping the agency, while frowned upon by some of the creatives and the catering staff, made sense. Marketing needed a major boost and some of the staff thought (wrongly) that working in an advertising agency was one long lunch and putting in four-day weeks. Alas, no.

Dr X took six months before he made his first move. He terminated all of the catering staff (mainly female and over 55) in one swoop. There was hue and cry but no one had the courage to do much about it.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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