Strict Employers: When Workplace Discipline Goes Too Far

Strict Employers: When Workplace Discipline Goes Too Far

“Can I speak to you in my office for a moment?”

In a certain context this is the last thing an employee wants to hear. Recently I have come across numerous pieces which describe over-the-top “disciplinary procedures” in the workplace. These procedures range from a nasty court summons style letter to a hearing. Organisations attempt to justify pouring excessive resources into keeping employees in line as they believe it keeps them oprating at peak efficiency, but is this true? Excessive workplace discipline has become a major problem in Ireland with a 2013 report finding that 77% of employers had dismissed employees without even adhering to their own disciplinary procedures, (Hosford, 2013). This post examines when workplaces develop their own pseudo-legal system and the consequences of taking discipline too far.

Death by Paperwork:

Substantial evidence shows that when employees feel they have freedom at work they become more productive, committed and less likely to walk out of an organisation, (Gagné & Devasheesh as cited in Nauert, 2015). Despite this many employers ensure that on day one of employment employees sign a (usually) long winded contract and read an even more overwritten handbook which clearly outlines what happens when they put a toe out of line. While I accept that clear rules are needed to ensure employees aren’t stealing and coming in wasted many employers invoke harsh “procedures” for even the smallest mistakes. The problem with bombarding employees with rules and regulations on day one is simple: people hate being told what to do, (Jacobs, 2013). On day one of the job employees have lost that vital sense of autonomy (freedom) mentioned above which does not paint a positive picture of how they are likely to perform.

The Consequence of too much Authority:

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”

When an organisation poorly versed in employee relations writes the over-the-top contract mentioned above somebody needs to enforce it. Enter the managers and supervisors. Most of these professionals are caring, empathetic and effective but some senior staff appear to have appointed themselves as workplace police and judges. Years of research in organisational psychology has shown us that nasty managers/supervisors are ineffective, (Hamel, 2016) and a thorn in the paw of any organisation.

So how does it happen? Psychologists have named this the “paradox of power”. To become a leader one must have certain traits such as politeness, being an outgoing person and honesty, but all good things must come to an end. The paradox of power shows us that when a person reaches a position of power they often lose these traits and become rude, reckless and impulsive, (Lehrer, 2010). Giving certain individuals excessive power in organisations is a dangerous move as those with a greater sense of power tend to advocate much harsher punishments in comparison to those who were more modest, (Wiltermuth & Flynn, 2013). To bluntly summarise: if certain managers and supervisors wish to act as if they are the law then perhaps they should hit the books once more and change careers.

The Consequences:

So we have established that overwritten paperwork and nasty management is ineffective (and this is painfully obvious). Sadly this is only the start of the problem. Excessive discipline may cause excessive deviance. Lawrence & Robinson (2007) suggest that excessive organisational power leads to a loss of autonomy, identity and a sense of injustice among employees which in turn causes frustration among the workforce. The authors also suggest that this attempt to keep employees in line actually does the opposite: it motivates employees to engage in deviance to get retribution for injustice. This retribution could be as simple as employees intentionally being unproductive. Annoy enough employees with excessive discipline and you may just find yourself in hot water.

One deplorable way some organisations ensure employees are following the rule book is through excessive monitoring. While an eye does need to be kept on employees to ensure things are up to speed, is breathing down their necks really necessary? Not only is it a waste of resources and a little creepy, it paradoxically damages productivity. A wealth of circumstantial evidence shows that excessive monitoring results in significantly increased anxiety and stress, (Roberts, n.d.) which aside from causing a toxic work environment directly harms employee productivity and increases absenteeism, (Towers Watson, 2014).

The Real Law:

Excessive workplace discipline is not only counterproductive but it may bring the law knocking on an employer’s door. I am no solicitor or legal expert but some reading found that in Ireland employees are protected from this sort of behaviour by law and employers have a duty to “prevent any improper conduct or behaviour likely to put the safety, health and welfare of employees at risk”, (Health & Safety at Work Act, 2005, sec. 8). An employee could easily allege they were being intimidated by a superior through excessive monitoring or over the top procedures which impacted their health and welfare at work. Dismissals can also be disputed and employers may find themselves in hot water under the Unfair Dismissals Acts (1977-2015). This also applies to constructive dismissals (where an employee has elected to leave their job due to the conduct of an employer). To put it bluntly: if an organisation acts like it is the law, it might just attract the law.


The idea that  running an organisation as a “tight ship” in regards to discipline is an outdated myth which has been shown to be very ineffective. Employees need a certain degree of freedom and respect if organisations wish to hold on to a productive workforce. Those enforcing codes of conduct must be carefully selected and monitored to ensure they are fit for purpose. The modern workplace is changing fast with employees becoming more critical and able to take real action against unfair treatment. This has become a priority for statutory organisations (who are the real law) so organisations attempting to put themselves in a position of excessive authority over employees may be simply overpowered and put in line.


Hamel, G. (2016). What Is a Bully Management Style?. Chron. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Hosford, P. (2013). 77 per cent of Irish bosses have sacked an employee without following procedures. The Journal. Retrieved from

ISB,. (2005). Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Jacobs, C. (2013). Don’t Read This. Psychology Today. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Law Reform Ireland,. (2016). Unfair Dismissals Act 1977. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Lawrence, T. & Robinson, S. (2007). Ain’t Misbehavin: Workplace Deviance as Organizational Resistance. Journal Of Management, 33(3), 378-394.

Lehrer, J. (2010). How Power Corrupts. WIRED. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Nauert, R. (2011). Worker Autonomy Can Lead to Greater Productivity, Satisfaction | Psych Central News. Psych Central. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Roberts, A. Monitoring In The Workplace: Health Concerns. Stanford University. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Towers Watson,. (2014). Workplace stress leads to less productive employees. Towers Watson. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from

Wiltermuth, S. S., & Flynn, F. J. (2013). Power, Moral Clarity, And Punishment In The Workplace. Academy Of Management Journal, 56(4), 1002-1023. doi:10.5465/amj.2010.0960

Managerial Psychopaths: A Bad Investment

Managerial Psychopaths: A Bad Investment

We often think of psychopaths as dangerous criminals locked up and kept behind bite masks. While some psychopaths are indeed incarcerated many remain in society and in very successful careers. Psychopaths are often attracted to positions of power with management being a prime example as it gives them access to groups of people they can control to amuse themselves and exploit for personal gain. The prevalence of psychopathy in leadership positions is estimated to be four times higher than in the general population, (Whitbourne, 2015) which paints a grim picture for employees and organisations alike.

I am not for a second saying that managerial positions are overrun with psychopaths but rather highlighting the risk these people pose to organisations when they do get in the door. Many managers are kind, caring and effective but when they are not problems arise and fast. The best and most effective managers will earn employee’s trust, respect employee’s time and use a consistent style, (Lipman, 2013). Poor or nasty management styles have been shown to majorly impact motivation, (Bianca, 2016) which in turn destroys productivity. Management is the backbone of a healthy, happy and productive workplace. To clarify once more I am not saying that every nasty manager is a psychopath; they could just be a nasty person who was put in the wrong position through poor selection. The focus of this post is however on when psychopaths are managing employees, why this is organisational suicide and what to do about it.

The term psychopath is no longer used in psychology or medicine and has been replaced by the term Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) but for ease I will continue using the term corporate psychopath as it is most commonly used to describe this phenomenon.

 How to Spot a Corporate Psychopath:

Spotting a corporate psychopath can be hard as these individuals use their superficial charm to rise through the ranks quickly and go unnoticed due to the hectic nature of modern organisations, (Boddy, 2011). Thankfully research has isolated a few common characteristics. Cable (2013) & Eichner (2014) have put together excellent lists of warning signs to look out for.

These individuals may be likable, often too likeable, which can fool superiors and leave them with an attitude that they can do no wrong. Behind this charming façade can be a lack of empathy, a pleasure in undermining others, a love of causing conflict and confusion and taking credit for the achievements of others. Character assassination, blackmail and seduction are also commonplace. Attempts to correct these behaviours may expose the individual’s true colours very quickly. When corrected, these individuals tend to shift blame onto others (such as subordinates) in a seamless fashion, leaving superiors confused and duped. One often covert sign is outward displays of emotion followed by an immediate return to normal, which is possible due to psychopath’s inability to feel emotions properly or at all: returning to normal after crying is easy because it was all an act. Other things to look out for include fleeting friendships (which end once the individual gets what they want), constant requests to take into account extenuating circumstances for poor performance and unnecessary risk taking.

Any of these signs are red flags for organisations. Let’s see why.

 The Cost of Psychopaths:

One of the most common behaviours psychopaths in the workplace engage in is bullying. Boddy, (2011) found that organisations with no corporate psychopaths showed a bullying incidence of 54.7% whereas those with corporate psychopaths showed a 93.3% incidence. This unacceptable behaviour is expensive and is estimated to cost organisations €3 billion per year, (Harrold, 2015). This is due to a number of reasons such as high turnover, sick days due to stress and legal repercussions, (Parris, 2015). Psychopaths leading teams won’t do your profits any good it seems.

Psychopathic managers also breed toxic behaviours into employees with subordinates learning negative behaviours from these leaders (Boddy, 2013). This makes sense as managers are in a position where they are supposed to be setting an example for others to follow: unethical behaviour breeds unethical behaviour. Unethical behaviour can lead to legal issues, reduced productivity and a bad name for your organisation.

Not only do corporate psychopaths damage those they manage, they also directly damage organisational performance as they themselves may not be anything special and may underperform, (Mathieu et al., as cited in Whitbourne, 2015). Using superficial charm and manipulation these individuals may just convince organisations that they are performing at their best. A tailored suit and an easy smile go a long way. When things do go wrong and the blame is pointed at the psychopath they will easily find someone else to blame, and you will most likely be tricked into believing it, (Eichner, 2014).

If these behaviours are allowed to go unchecked employees will begin to talk and quite soon the reputation (and success) of an organisation can be in tatters, especially if the organisation relies on public consumption, (Fowler, 2012). A reputation for bullying, poor performance and unethical behaviour is unlikely to attract consumers and investors. This risk of destruction by word of mouth has no doubt risen significantly in the age of social media and can sink an organisation in a very short period of time.

Protecting your Organisation:

A central problem is that organisations seeking managers are attracted to intelligent, driven, energetic, charming and charismatic individuals who can influence others which are all traits commonly displayed by organisational psychopaths, (Babiak as cited in Eichner, 2014). So how can organisations separate psychopaths from those who are genuinely all of the above? Here are some tips which may be useful to organisations when selecting leaders:

Stay Informed:

Information is power right? Recruitment and HR teams need to be made aware of the above warning signs. Although it is unlikely recruiters or HR teams are psychologists or physicians some education on what to look out for may just be a stitch in time.

Prevention is better than the Cure:

Psychometric screening may detect anti-social traits during the recruitment phase. Inclusion of simple tests in standard batteries may stop these individuals from reaching positions of power. One of the most famous and used tests is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), (Hare, 2003). Another short (20 item) test is the B Scan 360, (Mathieu, Hare, Jones, Babiak, & Neumann, 2013) which is specifically tailored to sniff out workplace psychopaths.


What are employees saying about leaders? The human ear is frustratingly underused in organisations. Remember that employees may see these traits on a daily basis and may be able to inform HR better than anyone else. Turning a blind eye to reports when they do come in makes employees feel undervalued and I don’t need to highlight what that does to productivity. Listen, investigate and act.


A psychopath is leading your employees, demoralising them and draining your organisation. I think the solution is pretty obvious: remove them from the organisation. Keep in mind that this may not be a walk in the park: psychopaths are experts in lying and manipulation and may convince organisations not to dismiss them. Rehabilitation is difficult when working with psychopaths; in fact it is one of the hardest conditions to treat, (Berger, 2014). Sensitivity training run by the HR department will be of little use here.

In conclusion: if years of Hollywood productions have taught us nothing else it should be that psychopaths are bad news. Organisations can become a playground for these individuals quite easily if nothing is done. A very expensive playground.



Berger, F. (2014). Antisocial personality disorder. National Institute of Health. Retrieved 17 June 2016, from

Boddy, C. (2011). Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace. Journal Of Business Ethics, 100(3), 367-379.

Boddy, C. (2013). Corporate Psychopaths, Conflict, Employee Affective Well-Being and Counterproductive Work Behaviour. J Bus Ethics, 121(1), 107-121.

Cable, J. (2013). How to Spot a Psychopath in Your Workplace. Retrieved 17 June 2016, from

Eichner, B. (2014). 11 Ways to Spot a Psychopath at Work. RecruitLoop Blog. Retrieved 17 June 2016, from

Fowler, J. (2012). Financial Impacts Of Workplace Bullying. Investopedia. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from

Hare, R. D. (2003). Manual for the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Harrold, M. (2015). Workplace bullying costs money, trust and can even ruin lives. The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from

Holt, S. & Marques, J. (2011). Empathy in Leadership: Appropriate or Misplaced? An Empirical Study on a Topic that is Asking for Attention. J Bus Ethics, 105(1), 95-105.

Lipman, V. (2013). 5 Things the Best Managers Do — and Don’t Do. Psychology Today. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from

Mathieu, C., Hare, R., Jones, D., Babiak, P., & Neumann, C. (2013). Factor structure of the B-Scan 360: A measure of corporate psychopathy. Psychological Assessment, 25(1), 288-293.

Parris, T. (2015). Business Costs of Bullying in the Workplace. Overcomebullying. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from

Whitbourne, S. (2015). 20 Signs That Your Boss May Be a Psychopath. Psychology Today. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from

It’s Not Me….. It’s You: Why We Quit Our Jobs & Why Employers Need to Listen up When Science Speaks

It’s Not Me….. It’s You: Why We Quit Our Jobs & Why Employers Need to Listen up When Science Speaks

“I’m so f#!@#ing done!”

The famous last (internal) words of many fed up employees. Then follows the overly polite resignation letter full of thanks, the usual it’s not you it’s me and I want to develop my ect ect….. Although quitting our jobs has become an uncertain endeavor in the past few years given the restricted job market (ever hear the one about the company who want a 25 year old graduate with 30 years experience?), we are still quitting. The worst hit by high turnovers are hospitality (20.2%), banking and finance (13.3%) and healthcare (13%), (CompData as cited in Bares, 2015)

Quitting costs employers big-time. They have invested a lot of money to train us and keep us working. When we leave employers need to spend time, money and effort to go out and find replacements who need to be trained and orientated, (John as cited in Ongori, 2007). Employees quitting is also very bad news for company performance as those seeing their workers flee in droves tend to perform poorly, (Park & Shaw, 2013). Not only does quitting mean having to replace someone, it also makes potential recruits less likely to want to want to fill that gap. The advent of social media also allows employees to rate employers in seconds and for these ratings to spread faster than ever before. Not only has the employee walked out, they have been sure to slam the door behind them.

Why we Quit:

We all know the scene: a dreary office kitted out in only the finest 90’s decor with a clock that is either broken or just never seems to move proudly perched on the clinically white wall to remind employees that time is money (the company’s of course). Also starring in this 21st century production are managers who remind us that we aren’t doing enough and impossible deadlines with a cameo from the ever broken coffee machine. Why in the name of god would we drag ourselves out of bed for THAT? The fact that that is an image a lot of us associate with the working world is a big problem; we hate the place before we even get there. The social science jury has returned with a verdict that proves what many of us assumed was fact: if we hate our jobs then we are a lot more likely to quit, (Markey, Ravenswood, & Webber, 2012). In Ireland a staggering 51.2% of workers report being unhappy at work, (Buckley, 2016), which is bad news for Irish organizations. So what is wrong with organizations that is making so many workers throw up their papers in a spectacular scene and walk out of the front door? Let’s look at three big causes of workplace misery (and thus turnover), some solutions and a game plan.

Rough Day at the Office?

Let’s start with the bricks and mortar that make up the workplace. This makes sense as what employee would work well sitting in a back breaking chair in a cramped cubicle surrounded by dull colours? Poor workplace design is known to contribute to falling productivity, (Haynes, 2008) making us feel dejected and organizations scratch their heads at falling morale. Even small aspects of a workplace may contribute to employee misery such as poor lighting, (Hameed & Amjad, 2009).

Making workplaces more comfortable may seem like a challenge as this can cost a bomb in the short-term depending on the shape of the workplace but in the long term productivity and employee retention is boosted meaning more profits.

Manager or Slave driver?

When we work, most of us will need some direction to ensure we are doing our jobs right. This throws up a big problem: humans as a species don’t like being told what to do, (Jacobs, 2013). To get around this problem organizations need to have a way of getting the job done without pushing employees to the point where they just halt and dig their heels in.  Enter the managers. Despite being a vital part of organizations management is a major reason people quit. While managers do not have an easy job and need to meet requirements sometimes the way this is “achieved” leaves a lot to be desired contributing to workplace misery and, you guessed it…swinging front doors.

The solution is simple: careful selection of managers and supervisors. Managers who are caring and supportive get the job done, (Moore, Cruickshank, & Haas, 2006). Managers with a human side who support each worker on an individual level are vital to performance, (Chandrassekar, 2011).  Having managers in place who use bullying and intimidation are a major cause of reduced morale and high turnover, (Hamel, 2016; Whipple, 2016). Keeping these people in place is organizational suicide. Check in with your workers to get some feedback and if managers are using intimidation or bullying then its time to retrain or remove them.

Life off the Clock:

A simple fact is that many of us work high pressure or mundane jobs to provide for living life. Many of us see jobs as a means to an end like getting to take our kids on a holiday or to be able to afford a treat or two.  Sit a 9-5 worker down and you may just hear a theme coming up quickly: a lack of hours in the day. Dig deeper and you’ll often find that we lament about not being able to have plain and simple fun. Speak to workers with a family or active love life and they will often tell you that getting time to focus on these vital aspects of humanity is not as easy as it should be. Research has shown that stress and work-life conflict make quitting your job a lot more likely, (Noor & Maad, 2009).

We live in an age where contact can be made 24/7. Work can email you whenever they please and ask you to get things done. Bringing work home used to be associated with very few professions but in the age of constant connectivity working 9am to 11pm is sadly very possible. Again the solution here is very simple and requires no elaboration: keep work in the workplace and appreciate that workers have a life outside of the office. Offering flexible schedules is a major way of boosting job satisfaction, (Shetrone, 2011).

Game plan:

So far it seems that keeping a workplace fit for human habitation, keeping nasty managers in check and letting employees live life are pretty important. With all this said and done, is there a game plan that employers can follow to keep their workers in the building?  Although a simple solution may be to offer more money this has not (on its own) been effective, (Chandrassekar, 2011), employees want more than just pay-outs.

Removing the obstacles mentioned above is vital to employee retention, but how does an organization keep happiness constant?  Schwartz & Porath (2014) following a study of over 12,000 white collar workers found that the keys to a happy and productive workplace boil down to four key needs being met:

  1. Physical: allowing employees to recharge and rest at work.
  2. Emotional: feeling valued for the work we do.
  3. Mental: allowing employees to focus on their most important tasks and allowing them to figure out how they work best.
  4. Spiritual: no, really. Giving employees a chance to feel connected to a higher purpose is key. Giving us a sense of why we are doing something may just make us last longer.

Even one of these needs being met boosts productivity. The more needs met the better your employees will work, (Schwartz & Porath, 2014) and stay in their jobs. Combine these findings with the three sources of misery mentioned above and one may just see a happier, larger and more productive workforce.




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