Penny Wise–Martha Johnson


“Do you know anything about pennies?” Rob asked.

“No.” Now what? I wondered.

One morning, as I walked down the center aisle to my desk, I noted a colleague, who no longer spoke to me, had placed a large jar on the file cabinet outside her cubical with a note: “Place pennies here”. I thought it odd but did not understand until a few days later. The Branch Manager, Rob, called a meeting with me alone. The Supervisor told him I had been threatening the lives of staff by placing pennies on their desks when they weren’t looking, a warning of their impeding demise. Her proof: I was from Chicago where mobsters place pennies on the eyelids of the deceased. In all snarky-ness I explained that pennies would never do; they had to be silver dollars or at the very least half-dollars. Apparently, she didn’t know the mobster’s coins were meant to pay the Ferryman, an oddly tender gesture. “Rob, no self-respecting Ferryman would ferry anyone’s soul to Valhalla, nor anywhere else, for a lousy two pennies; not for two-bits, either.” I was exasperated and angry; my patience with her foolishness was long gone.

Gallows humor. Funny, but not really. This is how bizarre and ultimately dangerous a workplace can become when a malignant narcissist is in charge. Shortly after this absurd event, my own denial lifted. I felt fear in the pit of my stomach. I wrote a memo to upper management. I did not feel safe on the worksite. The Supervisor was talking murder. HR conducted a review. She was removed.

Some years ago, this was my workplace. It was a small coastal social service office staffed with dedicated professionals. We were a unified, caring and supportive group. We were joyful. The new Supervisor destroyed all that. She focused on personal power and control. The work itself was of minor concern. From her first day, she set her sights on securing the managerial position a step above hers. Rob had to go. She scanned the staff looking for weaknesses and strengths to exploit toward her end, or eliminate as obstructions. She divided staff into “good kids” and “bad kids”. Using fear and favor she formed a coalition of subordinates loyal to her who she could use as proxies to attack and eliminate all “enemies”. If it went bad, she could blame the proxies and absolve herself. She was cunning.

Those who resisted were targeted and had to be destroyed. One day I dared consult with Rob; I broke from total loyalty she demanded. I became an obstruction, one of the “bad kids”. I had to go. But under the Union contract I had to fail at my job. My work was impeccable. I received accolades from many quarters. She was stuck with forcing my resignation. It became an obsession. She attacked me professionally and personally. The Mobbing Syndrome took over. Colleagues, with whom I had been very close, turned and either actively attacked or ignored me. It didn’t work, though. Everyone underestimated my toughness and my survival skills.

Malignant narcissism is like an infection. If left unchecked, it metastasizes. In time the escalated attacks enter the realm of the bizarre. She overestimated her power. They all do.

Toward the end of her tenure, she created this one last surreal scenario. She was oblivious to the seeds of her destruction it contained.

Night clean-up crew would find pennies on the floor and place them on the closest desks. In her deluded mind, she invented what she believed would be the kill shot. It had no basis in reality. She spread a lie: “Marcia is homicidal.” I had surreptitiously placed the pennies on desks. My colleagues were in grave danger. Fear abounded. And then HR intervened, and it all came crashing down. She was gone.

In fact, she created a dangerous worksite. She alone surfaced the notion of homicide. She had a history of violence and brandishing a weapon. She was only self-serving. She demanded loyalty. She resisted any type of conflict resolution. She divided staff. She identified “enemies”. She created an atmosphere of treachery and chaos. She gossiped and implemented whisper campaigns. She broke the union. Every accusation she hurled was a confession. Everyone was exhausted.

This is how workplace violence happens. Those with hiring responsibilities take heed. Failure to know the “tells” could be disastrous. Workers in these situations accommodate and cope until it finally explodes.

Narcissism is a strange, fixed, childish disorder. After her hire, the worksite could not have progressed in any other way. I hope this will serve as a cautionary tale as to how destructive this personality type can be. It can happen anywhere. I take comfort knowing my courage saved my colleagues, even if they were unaware.


Martha Johnson moved to the North Oregon Coast in 1972 from Chicago and has lived in Gearhart and Astoria. She raised her children on the coast and worked here for more than 20 years. This is her home.