Thursday, January 31, 2008

Predatory Employees

Some of the strangest cases I've encountered have involved predatory bosses; even stranger ones, however, were with predatory employees.

The power-hungry, cruel or harassing boss is practically a stereotype but the cold and calculating employee barely receives attention in the press or the general culture.

And yet these creatures exist. Know ye them by these symptoms:

  • The capacity to play two roles almost simultaneously; e.g., the highly competent professional who is not only capable of handling any stressful assignment but would be seriously insulted if that capability were questioned...and the sympathetic victim who suffers severe emotional distress if someone utters a sarcastic remark or tells an off-color joke. Hypersensitivity and an eagerness to ascribe malice to innocent or blundering behavior are part of this performance.

  • The declared and open recording of all perceived offenses... and the subsequent documentation of any co-workers or supervisors who avoid interaction because they don't want their casual remarks to become part of a court case.

  • The creation of purported friendships in order to gain information that may assist an eventual case.

  • A jail house lawyer's knowledge of all complaint procedures and lines.

  • An expectation that supervisors and co-workers be understanding and tolerant of various lapses in job performance...combined with a failure to give those same individuals the benefit of the doubt.

  • A conspiracy to demonstrate that all others are conspiratorial.

Wait a minute, the plaintiff attorneys may say. Don't causes of emotional distress defy logic? Cannot the combat veteran quake at the thought of giving a speech? Isn't the declared intention to document simply a form of self-defense? Who can plumb the reasons for a broken friendship and aren't you being harsh in implying ill intent? Shouldn't employees know their rights? Wouldn't you distrust people if you feel you've been subjected to poor treatment? Is it not possible that actions taken to prepare a defense may seem to be conspiratorial?

Those all are great questions and they illustrate not just the fine line that exists between proper and suspicious conduct but the reason why employers are so vulnerable to the predatory employee. Employers fear how suspicious or reprehensible behavior on the part of an employee may be represented to a jury as the expected conduct of a victim. They worry, in turn, about how a manager's reasonable and appropriate behavior may be portrayed as oppressive or harassing. Their assumption is that juries will have an automatic sympathy for the underdog - the employee - versus the big, rich employer. Fear of litigation is both the sword and shield of the predatory employee.

The impact of this fear should not be underestimated. Employers overlook misconduct and keep people on the job who are highly destructive to efficiency and morale. This cowardice fosters mistrust among the managers and supervisors who correctly sense that they won't be backed up if they try to manage properly. Matters that would normally be handled informally are lawyerized and candor is severely restricted.

The problem needs to be surfaced and discussed. Selection procedures need to be improved so the predators can be screened out. Early intervention in potential cases, with the energetic involvement of the firm's attorneys, should be the rule and not the exception. Team values need to be set forth and reinforced.

These actions, while hardly magical, are justified by one simple fact: A predatory employee can poison a workplace for years. The people who suffer the most from the predators, namedly their co-workers and immediate supervisors, deserve better.


Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

I have seen predatory employees alot, particularly in small companies. Someone will operate through intimidation and confrontation one day, yet be as nice as pie the next. They are affronted by you questioning their behavior, yet are accusatory of yours in the same breath. They are very damaging to the morale of the rest of the workforce.

Michael Wade said...


You're correct. They can be lethal.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, we have one of those, No one wants to deal with him, so he doesn't get fired-he's a bully, but goes crying to his manager if anyone says a word against him, as if he is the victim. A tricky dude-everyone had learned to stay away from him.

Michael Wade said...


That seems to be a common reaction. The others regard the person as a problem and try to work around the individual.


Anonymous said...