How to Identify a Narcissist—Before You Start Working for One

My psychology degree has served me well during my career in human resources. It has afforded me a better understanding of learning theories, employee motivation, and mental health disorders. While I don’t presume to be able to diagnose the people that I work with, I certainly use my knowledge of psychiatric illnesses to identify individuals who are struggling—especially with anxiety or depression—and offer resources to assist them.

While I have read about, worked with, and developed accommodation plans for people with mental illnesses—bipolar disorder, addictions, delusions and hallucinations—it wasn’t until recently that I recognized the number of individuals that I have reported to or worked for in my career who I suspect struggle with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), NPD is characterized by a long-term pattern of exaggerated self-importance, need for admiration, and lack of empathy toward others. They typically have extreme difficulty accepting criticism and react with anger or by belittling others. They tend to take credit for others’ achievements and blame others for their own failures. At the root of this behaviour is deep-seated insecurity and repressed shame, often related to the individual’s upbringing and relationship with their parent(s). This is a serious mental disorder that affects men more than women. Unfortunately, men are far less likely to seek help for mental health issues than women, so untreated narcissism abounds.

While the term narcissist gets tossed around lightly, the reality is that working with, or worse yet, for someone who exhibits unchecked narcissistic tendencies can be challenging, demeaning, and downright scary. These people tend not to be particularly successful as employees; however, as they are attracted to power and status, those who are better able to subvert their selfishness and appear charismatic tend to exploit opportunities, move up the professional ranks, or start their own businesses. They habitually violate boundaries—emailing or texting at all hours of the day or night, burdening you with responsibilities outside of the scope of your job, or in extreme cases, asking you to do unethical things.

While some professionals suggest that understanding what makes a narcissist tick, complimenting them, and helping them live up to their ideal are ways to effectively work with them, I personally don’t think it is possible to work for a narcissist long term without taking a serious hit to your self-esteem, stress level, and possibly your own mental health.

So, my advice is to try to identify the red flags of a narcissistic boss before you accept the job offer.

Here’s what you can do:

  •  Ask about the organization’s turnover. If it’s exorbitant compared to the industry standard, or if none of the staff have been employed long-term, there’s likely a reason.
  • Read reviews of the company online—from both customers and former employees. Glassdoor, Indeed, and Google at good places to start. Reviews from disgruntled employees are common, however, if they significantly outweigh positive reviews, it’s likely indicative of an issue.
  • Talk to former employees. If a senior seasoned individual, recruited away from another organization, only lasted a couple of months with the organization—see if they will open up and share the reasons for their departure.
  • Talk to customers. If a customer indicates that they want to punch the business owner in the face (true story)—dig into it a bit more and see if you can find out why.
  • Talk to current employees if possible. While many employees may be intimidated and keep their mouths shut in order to keep their jobs, there are generally one or two who are willing to open up about what it’s really like to work there. If one of those employees happens to be a relative of the boss, who tells you that the boss is demeaning to employees (true story)—there’s a significant problem.
  • Talk to other professionals in the industry. If people clam up at the mention of the boss’ name—read between the lines. Worse yet if they tell you to proceed with caution—take that under advisement.  
  • Creep the boss’ social media and LinkedIn profiles. If they demonstrate a pattern of tooting their own horn, frequently failed relationships, or the inability to remain employed long term—listen to your spidey sense.
  • If the boss constantly talks about their own accomplishments, name drops, takes credit for everything good in the organization, and downplays, degrades, or name-calls others—that’s a good sign there’s an issue.
  •  If the boss says, “I’m difficult. Pansies can’t thrive with me” (real quote)—RUN!

It’s important to trust your gut and stand up for yourself in any work environment, but much more so when there’s a significant risk of harm to your own mental health. By knowing the signs and doing some detective work before accepting the job offer, you can avoid the (inevitable) toxicity that results from working for a narcissist.