The Paranoid Employee

Problem Behaviors, Interviewing Tips, and Violence Risk Factors

Stephen White, Ph.D.
Summer 2008 Newsletter

Who hasn’t encountered the troubled and troubling employee who seems to be saying, “I need your help, but I don’t trust you, and you may even be part of the problem!”

Recognizing the Paranoid Employee. The hallmark of the paranoid individual is a pervasive suspiciousness, mistrust, and great sensitivity to any negative feedback.  Perceived slights are exaggerated as signs of the malevolent intentions of others. Challenging and perplexing for managers, HR and security professionals – the paranoid employee’s irrational fears and beliefs are entrenched and not easily subject to reason or problem solving interventions. Preferring emotional distance, they may function better in individual positions that require as little team interaction and customer relations as possible.  Many paranoid individuals will keep their idiosyncratic thoughts to themselves, act fairly normally, and perform their job adequately.  It is when their “issue” comes to the fore that the frank irrationality of their beliefs is apparent.

Because they can be demanding, arrogant, and angry it is easy to forget that paranoid individuals are basically very uneasy and fear being exploited or harmed.  To reduce their own anxiety and unable to get their way, some of them will retreat, regaining control by quitting or abandoning their job.  Others will persist adamantly, sometimes for a long period of time.

The Range of Paranoid Behavior in the Workplace.  Where “highly suspicious” ends and true paranoia begins is not always clear.  Paranoia can range from vague feelings of being persecuted in the absence of any facts supporting such feelings, to a highly developed and fantastic set of beliefs that are clearly delusional. Paranoid delusions may be bizarre and implausible (e.g., that aliens from another planet have surrounded an employee’s home), or actually quite possible, such as one’s spouse being unfaithful, or that managers are conspiring to assign someone to projects that will cause him to fail.  Paranoid thinking may surface as an off-handed or odd comment and be dismissed as something misheard or a brief moment of strangeness.  However, the comments usually continue, especially under stress, provoking concern and fear among coworkers and managers.

Stick to Problem Behaviors, Not Diagnoses.  Paranoid thinking has different causes, some of them quite treatable, and some of them decidedly not.  By nature most paranoid individuals are resistant to treatment, especially medication.  Of course it is not the role of in-house professionals to diagnose anyone who appears to have mental issues.  Managers should stick to observable problem behaviors that disrupt the workplace or interfere with productivity.  When the paranoid individual starts accusing coworkers of hostile actions, fear can quickly spread within a work group.  Management is compelled to act in these situations, but must do so carefully.

Threat assessment consultation may lead to a more effective course for resolution, reducing concerns, and preventing missteps.  Emergency mental health assistance is essential if someone is clearly out of touch with reality, out of control, and highly agitated.  Including legal guidance before making employment status decisions assures that the rights of all involved parties are given careful consideration.

Litigiousness and Unreasonable Demands.  Paranoid and delusional individuals may demand special investigations or the firing of “conspirators.”  Some keep detailed notes of their “evidence” of others’ perceived maliciousness, and are very litigious, requiring due diligence and careful documentation by managers and human resource professionals.  Extensive letter writing or email campaigns to senior management, highly placed authorities or the media are not uncommon.  Some paranoid current or former employees may evolve into long-term vexatious litigants, righteously pursuing their cause in the courts, however self-defeating and draining of their financial and personal resources.

Interviewing Challenges.  Establishing rapport and trust with a paranoid individual is crucial, but inherently very difficult.  Honesty and fairness are especially important, no less so than with other employee disputes.  Procedures for investigations should be clearly explained, and expectations for conduct respectfully defined.  Dismissing or confronting a paranoid or delusional person’s beliefs to his face is usually met with strong resistance.  It only confirms for them that the doubter is part of the “conspiracy.”  But it is a mistake to appear to agree with the paranoid’s beliefs in the interest of maintaining rapport.  It is preferable to acknowledge that the person is sincere in his beliefs, and to respectfully indicate the lack of evidence to support his views.

Demonstrating patience, keeping commitments to follow through, and being available, may reduce suspiciousness and anxiety.  Nevertheless an inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy often occurs – the individual’s insistent or disruptive behavior forces managers or threat management teams to take limit-setting actions.  This further increases the paranoid employee’s fears that the employer or others are “out to get me.”

It is easy to get frustrated and emotionally hooked dealing with overly suspicious or paranoid individuals.  Remember to confer with more experienced colleagues or professionals, especially if you feel threatened.

Paranoia and Violence Risk.  Only a small subgroup of paranoid individuals presents a risk for workplace violence.  When they become violent it is usually for two reasons:

  1. They are attempting to pre-emptively eliminate a perceived imminent threat to their safety.  This will often take the form of an apparently impulsive assault.
  2. They are acting on years of resentment concerning criticism, rejections, and defeats (such as in litigious campaigns), and now believe that it is “payback” time.  Such attacks are carried out in a planned, predatory manner.  In the workplace paranoid individuals are most likely to become violent in the hours or days following a shameful or rejecting event, such as a reprimand, loss of a job promotion, or loss of a relationship.

When threat assessment professionals interview the paranoid individual the important questions they seek to answer are: Does he feel a need to launch a self-protective attack to stave-off being harmed?; and, how will or would he otherwise respond to those who have “wronged” or “harassed” him?

Assessing violence risk in an individual case – its nature, severity, and likelihood – should always consider an analysis of the risk factors for workplace violence in toto.  A fuller explanation of the relationship between paranoia and workplace violence can be found in the WAVR-21 – workplace assessment of violence risk.  For more information on the manual go to