You could be working with a sociopath. Does your usually charming colleague ever surprise you with the ease with which they make ruthless decisions? Do you have a boss who loves to humiliate people in meetings?

Have you been on the receiving end of a campaign of harassment at work because you challenged the work practices of your colleague? Have you had a colleague take credit for your idea and pass it off as his/her own?

Estimates suggest that one in every 25 people in the world is a sociopath. Many people think sociopaths are cold-blooded murderers, but in fact many operate as seemingly 'model citizens'. Behind the façade they have interpersonal deficits such as grandiosity, arrogance and deceitfulness, lack of guilt and empathy, and impulsive and occasionally criminal behaviours. It's easy to miss these traits if you are not expecting to see them in someone you work with.

Because of their cold and calculated approach to life they have a natural advantage in situations where there's no place for feelings.

Sociopaths can be either male or female, though sociopathy is commonly thought of as a 'masculine' trait. And because it is largely viewed as a problem affecting men, the harmful potential of sociopathic women may be overlooked. In the main, sociopathic abuse is targeted abuse and in the case of female sociopaths is often manifested by the manipulation of peer relationships. It potentially involves aggressive competitiveness, ostracism, overt bullying, and telling lies about the victim to promote their rejection by others, in order to exclude them from the social group. Conversely, when men direct their aggression toward others, its function is frequently to damage the victim's sense of control or to gain dominance. The male sociopath's behaviour may be more obviously aggressive and more visible than the behaviour of sociopathic women.

Whether at work or at play, sociopaths crave excitement and high-risk situations. This means they naturally gravitate to the sorts of jobs where there is high drama and quick responses are needed. Because of their cold and calculated approach to life they have a natural advantage in situations where there's no place for feelings. This gives them an edge in certain types of jobs, say the courtroom or on the trading floor, where the number one objective is to win. Their natures serve them well in such situations but can also mean they readily cross the line.

Sociopath tendencies

A sociopath often singles out certain people for abuse: those who pose a threat. Sometimes bystanders are unwittingly caught up in the sociopath's manipulations because they have something to gain from the evolving situation, or their view of the situation may be obscured by the mesmeric influence of the sociopath, as this account illustrates:

From her first day working for the company Julie charmed the pants off her seniors and ingratiated herself to anyone with influence. She was fun, confident and kept exceptionally busy. She soon developed a reputation as a high achiever. However, behind the scenes and unbeknown to everyone, she was stealing equipment from work and using her time on the job to develop her own freelance consultancy business.

Nothing came to light until one day about six months into the job a junior member of staff saw Julie carrying stacks of office equipment including several laptops out of the office. The next week she saw Julie repeat the exercise. Both times it was late in the day, when most other staff had gone home.

We allow authoritative people to strongly influence our behaviour, something a sociopath is eager to exploit.

Julie was aware that her colleague was suspicious, so she set about creating distractions. Her first act was to report the laptop from her office stolen. She banked on the rest of the team finding it inconceivable that she would make up such things (she was a hardworking and reliable member of the team after all). In addition, she spread malicious gossip about the staff member who had witnessed the theft, and in the right ears let slip suspicions that it was this member of staff who was behind the laptop going missing.

Two months later, Julie resigned from the job. Everyone congratulated her and wished her well with her new venture, a consultancy business...

So how did Julie get away scot-free with theft and damaging a colleague's reputation?

Many of us experience blindness in situations like this. We allow authoritative people to strongly influence our behaviour, something a sociopath is eager to exploit. Effectively demonstrated by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and repeated many times since, tests show that over 60 per cent of us have a strong propensity to obey orders. This means we can inadvertently lend support to exploitation, harassment and abuse in certain situations.

What compounds bullying and abuse in the workplace further is what psychologists term the 'bystander effect' – when people don't act in response to another person in need or danger. An effect known as the 'diffusion of responsibility' witnesses people in groups losing the ability to realize that they are still accountable for their individual actions. Perhaps one answer to avoiding sociopathic abuse in the workplace is to be more alert to the sociopath's ruses, and less willing to follow the crowd.

Bullying or abuse in the workplace can have long-term effects on mental health. A counsellor can help you work through these problems in a confidential, non-judgemental environment. This can be especially valuable if you do not feel secure talking to your colleagues or employers about the issues affecting you.

Click here to buy The Empathy Trap: Understanding Antisocial Personalities, by Dr. Jane McGregor and Tim McGregor