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Written by

Stephanie Schierhuber


College of Business, Law and Governance

Publish Date

30 September 2019

Related Study Areas

Identify and address

Work can provide a livelihood, identity, and often fulfilment…unless you run into a workplace psychopath.

JCU Associate Professor of Law Louise Floyd shares the ways that the law can help empower employees, managers and business owners who come face-to-face with a workplace psychopath.

“Every single person you will ever meet will either have a job, employ somebody, or conduct some form of work,” Louise points out. For most people work occupies a substantial portion of daily life, so having a positive work environment is an essential part of health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, not all work experiences will be good. “No matter where you work, no matter what industry, no matter what country, whether you work in senior management, or you’re just starting out, there’s every chance in life that you’re going to come across a very difficult person in your workplace, who doesn’t enjoy seeing you succeed and they might even put a few obstacles in your way.”

So, how do you identify the workplace psychopath in your midst?

More importantly, how do you manage working with a workplace psychopath while protecting your livelihood and wellbeing?

Knowing how to stand up for yourself

Dealing with workplace psychopaths might appear to be a doom and gloom topic, but for Louise, sharing the legal options with those affected can be empowering. “Talking about if there is legal redress and what the law can do is actually very inspiring and uplifting because the aim is to help people negotiate those difficult circumstances,” she says.

In Louise’s experience, managing a difficult colleague or workplace can be especially complex for those in insecure employment. “You always get the question from people who are casual, ‘If I speak up, what if I’m not renewed?’” Louise says.

Restructures are also a source of concern for workers dealing with workplace psychopaths. “Restructures should be as the Fair Work Act says: genuine redundancy is for jobs that are no longer required — but what if people use redundancy to get rid of people they don’t like even if those people are really productive members of staff?”

Man and woman look angrily at each other while work at laptops
Women with head in her hands with stacks of paper in front of her on desk
Two people meeting while one person holds a pen with a notebook in front of them

A ripple effect

Employers aren’t the only ones affected by workplace psychopaths; there are large risks to businesses when the problem isn’t dealt with.

“There’s a duty on senior management, and in fact all management, to have a safe workplace. If somebody is putting obstacles in a person’s way, that’s actually a potential contravention of the duty to have a safe workplace,” says Louise.

One of the biggest risks for businesses is the loss of talented employees. “The really big issue is loss of talent, so if you know that you’ve got somebody who is obstructing the progress of really talented people, or applying double standards, what happens if you lose that talented member of staff?”

So, what do you do if you come face-to-face with a workplace psychopath or are in a toxic workplace? Louise recommends a stepped approach. “I think the big thing is keep evidence of what’s going on,” she says. “You don’t want to be overly adversarial at first. You want to try to navigate as best you can the workplace that you’ve got, and the relationships that you’ve got, with the evidence you have, if the situation’s ongoing and there’s no respite. If that still doesn’t work, then you’ve got to think about whether you need to bring in an external party and in what form.”

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Associate Professor Louise Floyd

Louise Floyd is an Associate Professor of Law at JCU. She is also a Barrister and former Judge’s Associate. Louise is lead author of Cambridge University Press' Employment Labour & Industrial Law in Australia, which examines crucial issues such as the impact of robots and AI on Australian workplaces. She has been published in the world’s leading law journal, The Law Quarterly Review, and she has consulted to the Government of Hong Kong.

Louise’s professional career has spanned several countries and continents. Louise was the first Australian to win the MacCormack Fellowship to the University of Edinburg, Scotland. She has been Visiting Fellow at Cornell in America’s Ivy League as well as Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, USA. Her national work has also included hosting events such as an International Women’s Day celebration that promoted “Taking Women Seriously”, being Hostess of and Speaker at the Townsville Court of Appeal Reception, and promoting and teaching Law at JCU.