Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Could Your "Difficult Employee" Have a Personality Disorder?

In a study of over 29,000 men and women in the U.S. workforce, it was determined that 18% of men and 16% of women have personality disorders that cause them to deviate from societal norms when interacting with others. The most common of these personality disorders, in order, were obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anti-social behavior, and paranoia. (Contrary to how the layperson usually defines it, anti-social behavior refers to behaviors such as lying, cheating and stealing.)

Personality disorders are less serious mental illnesses than diagnoses such as depression or bipolar disorder. But they do cause difficulties for the afflicted and those around them. Employees with personality disorders lost their jobs at about double the rate of those without disorders, and experienced serious problems with bosses or co-workers three times as often.

This study, published in the January, 2011 edition of the journal Industrial Relations, might explain any “difficult employees” you have. It seems every office has at least one. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is the most prevalent and usually the least offensive. I know my exercise teacher exhibits that at every class: when others try to help her take down equipment after class she gets upset when they put away things in the “wrong” place or wrap up cords and things the “wrong” way. If they try to help her by setting up chairs she will rearrange them so they are “just so” – alternating sets of two and three along each wall. We old-timers have learned not to help her and she appreciates that.

At work, these common personality disorders may show up as interpreting emails in distorted ways, taking innocent comments as personal insults, refusing to accept different ways of doing things, or seeing conspiracies where there are none. And of course, lying, cheating and stealing.

Although one of my clients told me, “Managers have to be psychologists!”, you really don’t have to be the one to make a personality disorder diagnosis, nor should you be. However, you should be alert to these types of behaviors so you can work with the individual in the best possible way. Just because someone has a personality disorder doesn’t mean they can’t still be a very valuable employee.

As with any employee, here are some management approaches to keep in mind:

   •  Assign responsibilities that may take advantage of their disorder’s challenges: for example, have them proof outgoing communications to ensure benign interpretation and proper procedure.
   •  Allow them to redesign tasks to fit their work styles.
   •  Ensure that your professional expectations are clear and hold them accountable when they don’t meet them.
   •  Understand that they may work best independently and try to assign responsibilities that allow them to do so.
   •  If there are repeated negative encounters with no improvement, yet the employee meets work output expectations, encourage them to take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program or other health benefits your employer may provide.
   •  Again, if there are repeated negative encounters with no improvement, it may be wise to consult with your legal and human resources departments to understand how best to deal with individuals with mental health challenges, and how to screen for them when hiring.

No one chooses to have a personality disorder. Diagnosed personality disorders are covered in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and are treatable.

The researchers estimate that their study results showing 17% of the workforce struggling with a personality disorder is probably low. Like my coaching client said, managers do need to be somewhat of a psychologist in order to be able to manage people effectively. It’s important to be aware of common psychological challenges that your employees may be dealing with and to have some options for managing them.

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