If you are among the millions of Americans who subscribe to NetFlix, you probably know that Frank Underwood is the scheming, manipulative, smooth-as-molasses congressman played by Kevin Spacey in the popular political series, House of Cards. If you are not familiar with Frank Underwood, but plan on binge-watching House of Cards before the third season comes out in February, you might stop reading this post now. I may or may not have included a few spoilers. As Francis Underwood might say, consider yourself duly warned.
Even though a few of Frank Underwood’s actions and deceptions while consolidating political power seem far-fetched, most of us accept the idea that the halls of the U.S. Capitol are teeming with charming, well-dressed sociopaths. That’s why House of Cards works – it feeds off of and heightens our cynical perception of D.C. politics. “Yep,” you might say after watching Frank Underwood’s latest late-night maneuver, “I could totally see that happening.”
Watching Frank operate in the Beltway is entertaining, but what if he’s a little closer to home? Specifically, what if there is a Frank Underwood milling around right now in your workplace?
The good news is that few sociopaths are clever and socially skilled enough to take over an organization the way Frank takes over Washington. If you do, in fact, have a true Frank Underwood in your office, chances are good that he already has you well on your way to being fired or, worse, indicted for a white-collar crime you did not knowingly commit.
What’s more likely is that the sociopath in your cube farm is of average intellect and has left a few hints as to his or her true intentions. Here, then, are a few warning signs that you might have a co-worker who is up to no good:
He Lays it on a Tad Too Thick
Frank Underwood’s greatest strength is his charm. He can butter people up – or fire them up – to go forth and do his bidding. Everyone on House of Cards, from the owner of Frank’s favorite barbecue joint to the President of the United States, falls prey to Frank’s country-boy-from-South Carolina routine at some point or another.
Most folks do not possess the strength of character that propels Frank Underwood. Narcissistic people can be extremely charming and charismatic, but their spells do not work on everyone. When dealing with coworkers, trust your instincts. What kind of vibe do they give you? When someone tries to seduce you with flattery and magnetism, they are likely to overdo it, or their approach may seem out-of-character. Ask yourself: Why is Rick in Marketing being so nice to me all of a sudden? Why is he bringing donuts into the office every Monday after years of not even participating in the Christmas potluck? What does he want?
This approach to your working relationships may seem cynical, but it can also prevent you from becoming an easy target.
She Wants Everyone to Know How Hard She Works
Law enforcement types say one of the tell-tale signs of a serial embezzler is that he or she rarely takes time off. Embezzlers fear that their schemes may be exposed while they are on a vacation, so they never take one.
Taking pride in a job well done is an attribute. However, be leery of colleagues who go on and on about how hard they are working, make a big show of staying late, and regularly go into the office on weekends when no one else is around. Be especially suspicious if these efforts do not result in increased productivity, or if that employee has a “process” to their work that nobody else seems to understand. What the heck are they doing with all that extra time in the office if they aren’t getting better results?
Frank Underwood makes a big deal about how hard he works, staying in the office late into the night to broker deals or hold strategy sessions. He does this even while working on bills he secretly wants to fail. It’s all great political theater, and it makes Frank look good to his colleagues. Don’t let these kinds of tactics fool you in your workplace.
He Dishes Dirt About Other Employees
Everyone enjoys a little office gossip, but do you work with somebody who has something derogatory to say about everyone? Kind of makes you wonder what that person is saying behind your back, doesn’t it?
Frank Underwood keeps files on all of his congressional colleagues that detail their salacious deeds. He uses this information as ammo when he wants to blackmail someone into voting his way. Tread lightly around the co-worker who, like Frank, has the dirt on everyone and is more than happy to dish it. You don’t want to give that person too much material for the file he is keeping on you.
In Washington, lying is a part of doing business. If you aren’t lying and deceiving, you aren’t getting much done.
In the workplace, however, lying is destructive. Catching someone in a pattern of seemingly harmless lies may seem minor, but it could be a sign of a larger deception. For example, your co-worker Patty in Accounts Receivable has a habit of fudging a little bit on her vacation time. This many not be a capital offense, but if you can’t trust someone to fill out their vacation requests accurately, can you really trust them to dutifully manage a core business function?
At some point, you have probably caught a colleague telling a whopper of a lie. Maybe you even confronted this person about it, and got to hear a sob story about how she’s having trouble at home, or that your boss is putting too much pressure on her. Listen to the grievances, nod politely, and make a mental note: I cannot trust this person.
He Always Has a Good Excuse
In a pivotal scene in House of Cards, President Walker rightly suspects that Frank Underwood is undermining his administration, and the president decides to cut off all contact with him. Desperate to regain the Commander-in-Chief’s favor, Underwood fires off a type-written letter about how he had an unhappy childhood and other challenges, but that he would never, ever betray the president. The earnest-sounding plea works, Underwood regains President Walker’s trust, and promptly destroys him.
The point is, every Machiavellian co-worker has a sad story to tell. He or she will employ it as a last-ditch way to stay out of trouble.
Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone deserves to be treated with compassion. Even Frank Underwood once gave his troubled henchman, Doug Stamper, a “third chance.” However, if the sad stories start piling up, and the excuses become more elaborate, it is time to take a critical eye to your co-worker’s behavior.
She is Always the Hero, and Always the Victim
When things are going great, your Frank Underwood wanna-be will find a way to claim credit. When things go poorly, he or she will be first to dodge the blame. Of course, Frank would use a little false Southern humility to take some of the edge off accepting all the glory, but not all of us are so deft and self-aware.
Keep a close eye on the colleague who feels the need to dominate every staff meeting with his or her profound commentary, then is strangely quiet when your manager wants answers about a missed deadline or a product idea that tanked. If that colleague has any Frank Underwood tendencies, he or she is already mulling over how to put all the blame onto you or someone else.
He Occasionally Turns Toward the Camera and Says Something Deliciously Snide
That would be great, wouldn’t it? Some of the best parts of House of Cards happen when Kevin Spacey’s character turns toward us and shares with us his true, evil intentions.
Unfortunately, real-life villains seldom do this.
Stephen Roth is the author of the humorous novel, A Plot for Pridemore. Be sure to “like” his author fan page at https://www.facebook.com/StephenRothWriter