Narcissistic businesses operate differently from empathic ones; their main priority is not the satisfaction of their customers and employees but rather how they can obtain the most amount of revenue with the least amount of effort. Much like narcissistic friends, partners, and family members, businesses as a whole can also operate in manipulative ways to pull the wool over a consumer’s eyes – or even that of a targeted employee who is forced to do their dirty work for them. What’s more, because their toxicity is built into the structure of their business model and seeps down to the way their employees operate, they can work as a team to undermine and belittle customers (or fellow employees) when achieving their shady goals. Whether you’re consulting a potential law firm, signing up for coaching services, joining a new yoga studio, hiring a PR agency, joining a new company, or simply thinking of making a hefty financial investment in a purchase, here are five tactics you should watch out for.
1. Constant and excessive use of unsavory sales tactics.
Most businesses will use some variation of these tactics to make sales, but corrupt ones do so in a way that robs the customer or mistreats their employees, lacks transparency, and does not acknowledge the customer’s needs. Unlike empathic businesses which work to ensure that their customers are comfortable with both pricing and quality, narcissistic businesses rely on mind games to make you think you’re getting a good deal when in fact you’re being shortchanged for a high fee.
They may use the foot-in-the-door tactic, which involves them making a small request, only to follow it up with a larger one; according to researchers, this is a compliance technique making it more likely that the customer will say yes to the larger request (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). In the context of paying for a service, this may mean stating an initial price which seems alluring, only to raise this price substantially with essential services you’d have to pay for regardless. In a contract to work for a company, it may mean telling the employee they will be doing a certain amount of work, only to overwhelm them with tasks outside of their paygrade as soon as they’re hired.
Another compliance tactic could be the door-in-the-face technique, in which a customer is asked a large request upfront, and upon refusal, is offered a seemingly “better deal” – this can work because the customer may now feel obligated to give something once they’ve refused (Cialdini et al., 1975). For example, a law firm might quote an extraordinarily high fee for services which do not require as much work, and then follow it up with a small discount to make it appear as if they’re being generous to their customers. They may even put a “deadline” on such an offer to make you rush to a decision before you’ve explored all your options. Similarly, an employer might suggest extreme hours to their prospective employees at a salary range that is far below what these hours warrant, only to whittle it down just a bit so that employees feel reassured, even though the workload still remains enormous.
If you’re not discerning of their manipulative ways, you may feel as if you should take the offer while it lasts because you can’t get anything better. They may even ask you first whether or not you’ve consulted other options, just to ensure that you will be bamboozled enough to buy their product or service and believe they have the best deal. The solution? Know that there is always something better available if you’re willing to put in the work to find it; always explore your options before making a decision.
2. Shaming, condescension, and contempt.
Many people underestimate the power that shaming has to get someone to do what you want them to do. Yet research has shown that when people have their self-esteem lowered, even temporarily, they are more likely to be compliant to the requests of others (Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson, 2003). While empathic businesses understand that you need to explore all your options, take your time to make a decision on whether to hire them or purchase their services, shady businesses will shame you should you decide to think over their offer or refuse it entirely.
Even if you’re a financially wealthy person, a shady business may claim their product or service is not in your price range to make you feel driven to prove them wrong. They might tell you, “You can’t get this done without our help. Only we can help. You’re making the wrong choices,” to make it appear as if you’re helpless without them. They may rouse a sense of inferiority in their customers by telling them or implying that, “You obviously don’t want to improve yourself. You’re obviously not good enough for our services – only the best can get access to us and succeed, we’re not for everyone, clearly.”
Or, if you’re interviewing at a toxic company, they may tell you they only want “team players” only for you to later discover that this means keeping silent about their unfair and unjust ways of doing things. They may tell you that you’re simply not working hard enough if you are unable to meet their constantly moving goal posts or if they need you to perform illegal acts to “get the job done.” This condescension and contempt is a big red flag to stop interacting with such a business immediately. If they cannot even approach your decisions or ideas with respect and politeness, how do you expect them to carry out their services for you in an empathic way?
3. Faux exclusivity and elitism.
Shady businesses will adopt a mentality that they are exclusive to make you feel as if you would want to be part of their “club” in the first place. They may name-drop, boast about how they’ve worked with celebrities or very “important” people, how they “choose” their clients selectively, and make it appear as if they are special and unique – this is an example of the grandiosity involved in narcissism (APA, 2013). These toxic businesses may communicate classist, racist, or sexist ideas, look down on you, make false assumptions about your income and means, or act as if you’re “lucky” to be speaking with them at all to provoke you into wanting access. They may act as if you have to prove yourself to them in order to be “chosen” and treated decently. This form of elitism reeks of a false sense of superiority and a narcissistic grandiosity that will not bode well for the customer or their empathic employees. If you’re making a high financial or emotional investment in a product or service, do you really trust someone who uses such elitism to bait you and make you feel less than? It is far better to spend your money, time, and resources in a company that is welcoming, emotionally attuned to your needs, and will deliver services and products with fairness and respect.
Here’s a secret: no actually successful company has to act elitist in order to get customers or new employees – the truly “elite” ones are those who deliver outstanding services to their consumers, or provide a stable work environment, time and time again, without acting like they are superior. The quality of their work and integrity speaks for themselves.
4. Little to no accountability for mistakes or transgressions.
An honorable company will cop to their mistakes and find ways of improving their business and rectifying the situation with their customers or any employees they have harmed. A dishonorable one will show a complete absence of guilt for their toxic behavior and practices; they will blameshift, refuse to be transparent and gaslight the customer or employee into believing it is their fault even though they are the ones who messed up. Whether it’s unfair pay for their employees, outrageous waiting times for products or services to be delivered to customers, a lack of communication, a failure to consider the customer’s schedule or requests in ways that majorly harm the consumer, a shady business will not provide reimbursement or even an apology for any damages they caused. They will act in a similar way with their “disobedient” employees (the ones who speak out against their lack of transparency or practices that lack integrity); you will often see evidence of high turnover in a company that exercises harmful practices.
5. Triangulation and group bullying.
Triangulation is the act of bringing another person into the dynamic of a relationship; it also applies to business deals and workplace bullying. Shady businesses have the acute advantage of having a whole team on their side to gaslight you as a consumer (or as an employee if you’re being the target of a smear campaign). Two or even three employees against one of course ultimately steals the show if you let it. Much like a narcissist in a relationship or friendship employs what we call enabling “flying monkeys” to discredit you or manipulate you further, shady businesses have toxic team members more than willing to participate in making you feel wrong for speaking out against them. Don’t be convinced; just because more than one person buys into the myth does not mean your experience and rights do not matter. You do have a right to protest unfair treatment and cut ties with anyone – whether an individual or business – that treats you with contempt.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA.
Bernstein, M. J., Sacco, D. F., Young, S. G., Hugenberg, K., & Cook, E. (2010). Being “In” With the In-Crowd: The Effects of Social Exclusion and Inclusion Are Enhanced by the Perceived Essentialism of Ingroups and Outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,36(8), 999-1009. doi:10.1177/0146167210376059
Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,31(2), 206-215. doi:10.1037/h0076284
Gudjonsson, G. H., & Sigurdsson, J. F. (2003). The Relationship of Compliance with Coping Strategies and Self-Esteem. European Journal of Psychological Assessment,19(2), 117-123. doi:10.1027//1015-57184.108.40.206
Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,4(2), 195-202. doi:10.1037/h0023552