Magazine article The Journal of Employee Assistance

Identifying and Treating Employees with Personality Disorders

Magazine article The Journal of Employee Assistance

Identifying and Treating Employees with Personality Disorders

Article excerpt

The personality of an individual is the factor that most determines the success of relationships in the workplace (Unterberg, 2003). Personality dictates how employees prioritize and organize their work, make decisions; complete tasks, accept or reject criticism, follow directives, comply with policies, collaborate with colleagues, cope with routines, and respond to management (Sperry, 1995). In fact, personality has a more pervasive impact on work than concrete skills or technical abilities (Unterberg, 2003). Therefore, when difficulties at work emerge, it is important to recognize that personality plays a prominent role.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--Fourth Edition--Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) defines personality disorders as an enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about oneself and the world that impairs social and occupational functioning. Two signature characteristics are: extreme difficulties in relationships with others; and problems regulating one's thinking, feelings, and impulses. According to the latest research, 14.8% (30.8 million) of American adults meet DSMIV-TR diagnostic criteria for at least one personality disorder (Grant et. al, 2004). This figure suggests double the prevalence of clinical depression and an almost equal rate compared to substance abuse (Lynch & Horton, 2004).

In the workplace, individuals with personality disorders may present as: the employee who cannot abide by rules or authority; the frantic worker who burns through an endless string of jobs and colleagues; the manager whose subordinates spend inordinate amounts of time and energy responding to his or her abuse; or the corrupt boss who exploits others (Lowman, 1995). The costs to these individuals are high. Personality disorders are associated with depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, traumatic accidents, and suicide (Andreasen & Black, 2006).

Employees with personality disorders also inflict significant damage on the lives of others. In a 1999 study of personality and stress at work, more than 80% of interviewees indicated that a difficult relationship with a co-worker was a primary source of stress (Cavaiola & Lavender, 1999). Furthermore, when asked to identify problematic colleagues, respondents consistently pointed to behaviors associated with personality disorders. Abuses of power, sexual harassment and abuse, and workplace violence--both psychological and physical--are all associated with personality-disordered workers (Cavaiola & Lavender, 2000).

Organizations also face significant consequences, such as absenteeism, and time lost to conflict resolution. In addition, litigation involving employees with personality disorders is on the rise, and recent court cases have documented the relationship between personality disorders and claims of harassment, wrongful termination, and emotional damage (Mentis, 2003).

Personality Traits Versus Disorders

It is important to differentiate personality traits and personality disorders, since even prominent traits can exist without the presence of a disorder. All people possess characteristics that guide how they negotiate the world and respond to external situations and circumstances. However, individuals with personality disorders do not adapt as a result of environmental feedback (Unterberg, 2003). Their traits are consistently excessive, persistent, and self-defeating. These are the people who shoot themselves in the foot time and time again--and yet somehow problems are never their fault.

Personality Disorders in the Workplace

Despite the fallout associated with personality disorders, affected individuals are often tolerated in the workplace--perhaps even more so than elsewhere in their lives (Lynch & Horton, 2004; Miller, 2003). This is due to the fact that employees with personality disorders also possess skills, talents, and characteristics that are unaffected by their problematic behavior (Lowman, 1995). …

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