Reader: In my career, I’ve had two narcissistic, verbally abusive bosses, so bad that team members under both bosses ended up needing therapy. After the second experience, I became self-employed to avoid working for other people. I’d like to make a career change, but the risk of winding up with another abusive boss has me very anxious, as does the idea of a prospective employer talking to my former bosses. One boss stabbed me in the back after I left and was cold and rude when I reached out more recently.
- What can I ask during the interview to get true insight into the workplace environment to ensure that supervisors are not abusive?
- What do I say to interviewers about the places where I worked?
Karla: “Narcissism,” like “psychopath” or “OCD,” is a term that gets tossed around even though it may not be clinically accurate. But I’m going to assume that you mean your former bosses exhibit core traits and behaviors commonly associated with narcissism, such as grandiose thinking or behavior, lack of empathy, sense of entitlement, inability to admit fault or failure, and exploitativeness. They may have tried to establish themselves as superior, through arrogant self-promotion or by tearing down competitors. Narcissists tend to be charismatic and good at drawing fans and followers — until they’re crossed or called out on their behavior, at which point they become cold and punitive. And if you aren’t immediately thinking of any public figures who fit that description, you may have been in a four-year coma.
The fact that you’ve had two such bosses indicates two possibilities:
- You’re working in an industry that attracts and rewards narcissists in particular, and/or
- You’re especially vulnerable to narcissists, possibly because you are empathetic or were raised by them.
It is possible to work for narcissists, “as long as you see them for who they are and realize they will never change the way they operate,” says Jim Weinstein, a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor. But even if you think you know what you’re getting into, working around a narcissist may take a bigger toll on your soul than you realize.
As someone who’s been through this particular grinder at least twice, you’re better off avoiding it altogether. The good news is, even in a narcissist-flooded industry, it’s possible to seek out islands of sanity to land on.
So how can you detect narcissists among prospective bosses? Probably not in the interview, where they’ll be on a full charm offensive, Weinstein says. Instead, he says, you should investigate the company and the boss on Glassdoor and Google, to see if warning signs surface in discussion boards or press coverage. On LinkedIn, locate the person’s profile and follow the trail of connections to see if it overlaps with anyone in your network who might have insights.
Elliott B. Jaffa, a behavior and management psychologist, recommends asking during the interview process if you can speak with current employees who would be on your team — or even chatting up employees you bump into outside the interview — to get a feel for the work environment.
As for what to tell interviewers, you probably know to avoid speaking ill of former employers, but if they crossed any ethical or legal lines, “that’s fair game to bring up in an interview,” Weinstein says.
When giving references, Jaffa recommends telling interviewers: “I’ll be glad to give you my former boss as a reference, but I’d also like to give you the names of two people who are more familiar with my work product.”
Finally, tune in to the voice of your own experience, both as your own boss and as a veteran of abusive workplaces. Do some research on narcissism in general and on your own experiences, possibly with the help of a professional therapist, so you can recognize why a prospective boss’s behavior seems familiar for unpleasant reasons. And know your worth; when you’re secure in your own knowledge and talents, you’ll be better able to see through a charismatic abuser’s smokescreen.
Pro Tip: For reading about how to deal with narcissists, Weinstein recommends “Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed,” by Wendy Behary.