In our newsletter last month, we published “Poison Control” – an article on how to deal with toxic individuals in the workplace (e-mail me for a copy).  This week, Peter Cappelli published an article called Managing the Difficult Employee, in which he points out that there are a lot of personality-disordered people in the workplace, possibly as many as16-18% of the workforce, according to another article “Does Having a Dysfunctional Personality Hurt Your Career?,” from Social Science Research Network, and mentioned in Industrial Relations. 

In case you don’t know what a personality disorder is, Psychologists describe personality disorders as “a form of mental illness defined as “pervasive patterns of enduring cognition and behavior” (i.e., how you think and act) that deviate from expectations in society and that cause difficulty and distress when dealing with others.” [Cappelli].

Pervasive and enduring are the operative words.  Make no mistake, these people cause big problems.  Personality-disordered people are mostly unchanging – some people respond a bit to treatment, but most don’t ever become fully functional.  However, personality disorders ARE covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so people hired and identified with these conditions are entitled to protection and accommodation in the workplace.  I am a big supporter of mental illness being treated as a medical condition, so I certainly won’t say anything against having to deal fairly and compassionately with any disabled employees.

But, the business outcomes of this phenomenon are important, and what this means to you as an employer is that you are likely stuck with having to deal with difficult people.  You must find ways to work around them, and assign them to things they can accomplish without harming your firm or other people.  They will never be “A” players, so it is hard to endure the difficulties, which may make it even more important to have “stars” – true “A” players in leadership and other key roles.


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