Sophia Heresford has extensive corporate business experience. She is also a licensed massage therapist and an avid tech geek.
My Assistant, the Sociopath
Note: This is a true story, but details have been changed or obscured to protect the privacy of all parties involved.
Despite my gut feeling that it was a bad idea, I hired her for many reasons. She was the only candidate who had ever gone to college. She was articulate. She liked the same kind of books I did and she was personable. My boss liked her, and I thought my boss knew everything.
The first six months, I could do no wrong. She plied me with sugar-coated compliments. I was the best boss she’d ever had. I was smarter than everyone else. I was such a good trainer.
In the beginning, her mistakes were small. I would correct them gently. They would reoccur. I would correct her again, rationalizing that this was a difficult field to learn. The last person I trained took three years to reach complete fluency.
The Absences Begin
Then she started missing work. Calling in sick and then confessing to co-workers that she’d actually gone shopping. Or that she’d been out-of-town consoling her (adult) child whose (very old) dog had died. Hardly valid excuses from any employee, let alone a new one who had yet to master their job.
Training, a laborious process for our field, became erratic due to her staccato absences. She was in on the day we processed her first order, but out on the day the order came to its logical conclusion. In on the day we did the month’s accounting, out when there were questions about her accounting entries. In on the day she was asked to send regulatory documents, out on the day we learned they had never been sent and put our license in jeopardy.
There were also times she was in, but sick and slumped over her keyboard. In, but leaving early. In, but gossiping with a friend and not sliding into her cubicle until an hour after her start time.
Putting Her on Probation
I spoke to her about her attendance. I put her on probation. My boss wanted to terminate, but I intervened, promising she was worth the effort to save. If I could go back in time, it would be that moment I would change.
Initially, the probation seemed to have a positive impact. But then, things spiraled downward. She was, once again, out more than she was in. Work quality suffered, and there was no continuity. I couldn’t even talk to her about her performance issues because she was never there. She had officially crossed the line of being more work to manage than she was worth.
The fateful day came when she actually came to work. I immediately called her down to my office. The intent was to discuss both attendance and performance issues. Before I could open my mouth, she slapped a packet of FMLA paperwork on my desk.
A tirade followed, informing me that I never trained her, everyone in the company hated me, and that she had a lawyer who was ready to sue my employer for millions. Then she threatened to take me to HR if I didn’t watch my step. The sugar-coating was now infested with maggots.
I was speechless at the reversal in her personality. However, I had enough wits about me to recognize the power play and confront it head on. My personal ethic is that I will not be bullied at work. I would rather lose my job than suffer a bully. My employee had unknowingly hit my personal limit. Instead of caving to her power play and allowing her to manipulate me at will, I jotted down what I could remember of our conversation and notified my boss, along with HR.
Her Campaign to Discredit Me
From that first meeting, things quickly got worse. HR met with her. She told them I had them boondoggled and spouted off all sorts of lies. When my boss and HR refused to bite, she spread vicious rumors among my staff and other departments, actively targeting my reputation.
She told stories about me so disturbing that people went to HR with them. They were worried about her and afraid of what she would do next. She wasn’t as good as she thought at hiding her toxic nature, and I had over a decade of service at this employer—meaning that, thankfully, my credibility was solid.
I had never before seen someone work so hard to discredit me and actively recruit people to their side of reality. It was incredibly threatening.
Why Couldn't We Terminate Her Employment?
Between the rumors, threats, lies, and poor work performance, you would think that it would be an easy matter of terminating. You would be wrong. The FMLA paperwork proved to be her savior.
Our labor lawyers refused to terminate for fear of claims of discriminatory retaliation. Never mind I had four inches of documentation. In fact, the lawyers said they had never seen such a well-documented case of poor performance, but that didn’t help me.
Perhaps at a different company with a different policy and more tolerance for risk, things might have been different. It didn’t help that she went around telling everyone about her regular meetings with her lawyer. We would meet to discuss her performance only to be forced to listen to rants about her pending lawsuit.
On several occasions, she was too ill to work, but in her email notifying me of the absence, she would note she was meeting with her lawyer that same day. So she was too sick for our office, but not too sick for litigation.
It Felt Like She Had Won
She had us cowed. The official plan was to wait out the FMLA and then proceed with termination. It felt like she had won.
Time dragged on. Morale in my department sank. Other staff members, wondering why they worked so hard when she didn’t even have to come to work, let their performance lapse.
Despite doing everything in accordance with company policy, I too felt defeated and couldn’t blame my staff for slacking off. After all, going by outward appearances, we weren’t doing anything about X and therefore couldn’t do much about what Y and Z did without facing accusations of uneven policy enforcement.
Finally, She Just Never Came Back
Eventually, after eight long, demoralizing months, X gave the jig up and simply never came back. It was anti-climatic. I had looked forward to a final confrontation to discharge all my long-simmering anger, but it wasn’t to be.
Vowing to never allow myself to be put in such a situation again, I exhaustively Googled and researched toxic employees. I read about sociopaths and psychopaths in the corporate world. I contemplated spending $500 on e-books written by self-avowed experts on sticky human resources situations. Between my experience and research, I analyzed my mistakes and crafted the following tips on preventing toxic employees from festering.
How to Fire a Sociopath
1. Discuss the Situation With Your Manager and HR
Before confronting the employee, discuss the situation with your manager and HR and make your action plan transparent. They may have valuable input and their review will keep you out of conflict with company policy. It is vital that you know where HR and your manager stand on the situation, so start there before doing anything else.
2. Maintain Stringent Review Requirements for New Employees
Have 30-, 60- and 90-day reviews in addition to a 6-month review of new employees. My Fortune 500 employer did not have stringent review requirements for new hires and I followed their lead, much to my regret.
3. Document Everything
Document, document, document from day one. You may never need it, but a paper trail is essential to terminations when employees are prone to lying and manipulation. Also, have the employee sign off on a meeting agenda for anything covered verbally, or follow-up all face-to-face meetings with an ‘as we discussed’ email.
4. Make a Training Checklist and Sign It
Have a training checklist outlining key tasks, performance deadlines (coinciding with the review schedule), and a spot for both the trainer and trainee to sign and date. This eliminates the ‘you never trained me’ argument.
5. Make an Attendance Policy and Sign It
Have the employee review and sign an attendance policy that includes instructions on how to call in sick and request vacation time. This eliminates the ‘you never told me the policy’ argument.
6. Don't Wait for Things to Get Better
If an employee can’t master basics such as spell check, simple deadlines, showing up to work on time or at all, terminate as soon as possible. It’s not going to get better. Believe people when they show you who they are.
7. Document and Address Problems Prior to the 1-Year Anniversary
Be sure any problems are documented and addressed well before the employee’s one year anniversary. Most employers have a coaching and/or investigative process they must go through before terminating an employee. Allow enough time to go through the internal Human Resources procedures and programs prior to the completion of the first year.
8. Expect Power Plays
Be prepared for lies and power plays in confrontations. Expect the employee to try to turn the tables on you or deflect attention to another employee’s short comings. Some employees react to confrontation by becoming angry and loudly defensive, while others tend to fall back on emotional arguments (i.e. everyone hates you). I call it the ‘Deflect, Deny and Decry Protocol.’
The only way to handle this is to be scrupulously honest, be sure your documentation is in order and to mentally be ready for it.
It’s hard to hear someone say mean things about you even if you know they are untrue. Steel yourself so the meeting doesn’t get derailed. Simply reiterate, “This meeting is about you and your performance. Just as you wouldn’t want us to discuss you with the rest of the staff, we won’t be talking about anyone else but you in this meeting. However, if you like we can set up a separate meeting with HR to discuss any concerns you may have.”
9. Maintain Your Composure
Maintain your composure and professionalism, don’t give the employee any ammunition. This is difficult because, as you saw, you have to be above reproach for months on end. It’s hard not to make an innocent mistake and easy to just give up, especially as more and more time passes. However, unless you plan on finding a new job, you need to see it through to the end to ever have a hope of a pleasant work environment again.
10. Bring a Third-Party Observer to All Meetings
Have your manager or HR witness all meetings to eliminate the ‘he said, she said’ game. Never let yourself be found alone with a troublemaker. Establish this rule with HR and management when you first meet with them. It is not safe to meet with toxic employees without a third party observer.
11. Monitor Morale and Behavior
Monitor staff morale and behavior. Don’t allow the problem employee to form a powerbase with lies and manipulation. Praise employees who are performing, be sure they know they are appreciated.
In addition, don’t let other employees behave unprofessionally toward the problem employee as this can become a source of legitimate complaints which can delay termination. Even if you are discreet, people aren’t stupid. They know when someone isn’t working out or isn’t pulling their load.
Insist that your staff conform to company policy and performance expectations, if they protest using the problem employee as an example, fall back on ‘this is about you and your performance not so-so and so’.
It’s also good to emphasize the importance of being inclusive of everyone in the department. There is no ethical reason to gang up on people. Bad apples weed themselves out without any help from anyone else. The employee’s poor performance will speak for itself.
12. Ensure Your Department Complies With All Policies
Prior to any meetings, review policies and procedures and ensure your entire department is in compliance. You can bet that any valid inconsistencies in policy administration will be used against you.
13. Do Not Engage in Conversation About Legal Issues
If the employee ‘lawyers up’ do not engage in a legal conversation. Refer them to HR to discuss any legal issues. Assuming you have vetted your course of action with HR and have their blessing, continue the meeting, confining it to performance issues. If the lawyer comes up, let the employee speak but do not participate, merely pick up where you left off on your agenda as if the lawyer was never brought up.
14. Walk Away If Needed
If the employee is being disruptive or you’re losing control of the situation, walk away. Normal employees in the process of being coached are interested to know how they can improve, but toxic employees just argue and confuse the issue. So cut the meeting short (which reinforces your authority) and simply say, ‘this doesn’t appear to be a good time, let’s plan to continue this later’ and leave.
With proper preparation, the employee should not derail you, so if this is happening, reassess your preparation and documentation to identify weak spots.
15. Be Patient
Toxic employees are not as smart as they think they are. However, they sure do think you are stupid, which is their fatal flaw. So long as you are professional and consistent, they will hang themselves with no help from you. Be patient. Fight the good fight and don’t let a bad apple subvert your ethics or proactive management style.
There is a bright side to the situation: You will learn a lot about how HR works and will improve your management skills.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Monika on July 29, 2018:
This goes for management psychopaths as well
Nabil on November 11, 2017:
Thank you, thank you
Meredith on March 23, 2017:
Thank you so much for sharing the details of your experience and the lessons learned. You provide a great set of instructions for how to proceed when these very unfortunate situations arise.
bleh on September 24, 2014:
This doesn't tell you how to screen out the sociopath. You're still vulnerable to wasting so much effort/time/money/etc once the sociopath is in. It only takes a few HIV viruses to infect someone with AIDS and it's non curable. The billions and billions of cells in the entire body will die due to a few viruses. Likewise, a single sociopath can bring down an entire company. I think the focus should be on not letting the sociopath get hired in the first place, not damage control as your laundry list shows.
Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on December 04, 2012:
This is an excellent article. It provides invaluable information for employers. Document, document, document is the best advice -- there is no substitute. I like No. 4 also, to have the employee sign off on training. Good hub, well-organised and extremely helpful.