How “Shape Shifter” Employees Disrupt the Workplace

Published: Jul 21, 2017
Modified: Jun 01, 2020


“Claire” seemed to be the perfect new hire. When corporate management visited your branch office during Claire’s first workweek, she surprised you and delighted the managers above you by quoting the corporate mission statement in her brief self-introduction. “You’ve hired a keeper,” your CEO said.

During Claire’s first month, she bonded with you, letting you know how grateful she was for the opportunities you gave her, cooperatively handling extra projects when you sought a willing volunteer, and completing all projects by deadline, even if it meant staying late or working weekends.

You started hearing grumblings from her peers and other employees a month after her hire, but you assumed Claire’s talent had inspired others’ jealous reactions. By the time you learned the truth about Claire, it was too late—for you.

Shape shifter employees turn workplaces upside down. Managers or colleagues taken in by their facade and flattery soon learn that the shape shifter’s collegial approach can evaporate like mist on a hot summer morning.

The shape shifter’s M.O.

Shape shifter employees use a deferential facade to bond with upper management. While they find ways to make themselves appear valuable and talk the party line, their agenda is their own success. They work toward that goal regardless of what it costs their manager, others, or the company.

Classic “kiss up” and “kick down” covert bullies, shape shifters show their “claws” to those who get in their way, steal credit for others’ efforts, and stab in the back anyone between them and success.

The shape shifter’s peers and immediate manager fare the worst. Shape shifters sneer at their peers’ accomplishments and “forget” to provide them with promised materials by feigning a misunderstanding of commitments. Those forced to collaborate with shape shifters become nervous wrecks when deadlines loom. Worse, when they appeal to the shape shifter’s manager, the shape shifter insists he or she is being unfairly defamed by jealous coworkers.

Meanwhile, shape shifters subtly undermine their immediate manager by blind copying the manager above them with misleading emails. They weaken their manager’s credentials by calling those above him with pseudo-legitimate questions, claiming “I wanted to ask my manager about this but couldn’t find him anywhere.”

How they trap their managers

Despite the storm clouds surrounding the shape shifter, those in management find it difficult to believe that the “great” employee persona masks an evil twin. If the disbelieving manager defends the shape shifter, it weakens his relationship with other employees.

When the shape shifter’s immediate manager finally realizes what’s going on and tries to explain his new opinion to those above him, he often lacks objective facts because he hasn’t collected them. Those in charge wonder if the manager has drawn the right conclusion or is simply threatened by a “star.”

Taking out the shape shifter

To remove a shape shifter who has successfully initiated himself with upper management, a manager needs ammunition. Tools such as a 360-degree review or employee survey can reveal the shape shifter’s true nature. Both strategies provide those who fear the shape shifter’s “claws” with a confidential method for voicing their concerns. They also provide a clear foundation for improvement-oriented coaching and helpful documentation should discipline be a desired remedy.

Managers who are tuned in to the collateral damage caused by shape shifters can also follow normal disciplinary documentary procedures. This approach can prove successful, as shape shifters excel at “spin” rather than work. Because shape shifters also possess highly attuned antennae, they often leave as soon as managers start this process.

You may wonder what happened to Claire. She stepped into her manager’s spot on the organization chart when corporate decided “it was time for a change” in the branch office’s management. Half of Claire’s former peers, who’d had enough, soon left—a clue the corporate office failed to pick up on. Realizing that productivity in the branch would soon tank, Claire used her promotion to leverage her way into a senior management position in the corporate office, ready to try her spin on a new playing field.

About The Author

Lynne Curry, PhD, is the founder of The Growth Company, an Avitus Group company, and consults with employers to create real solutions to real workplace challenges. Now Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for Avitus Group, she leads a team whose services include HR On-call (a-la-carte HR), investigations, mediation, management/employee training, executive coaching, 360/employee reviews, and organizational strategy services. Curry is the author of Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge (AMACOM, 2016) and Solutions. She can be reached at [email protected] or @lynnecurry10 on Twitter.