Admit it. You’ve got one in your office. Perhaps you’ve been accused of being one. The back stabber is someone no one wants to know and unless you’re educated in the ways of tackling one of these energy-suckers, you’re in for a long and painful battle in the tough world of office politics.
According to Dr. Mitchell Kusy, management consultant and co-author of Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and their Systems of Power, both male and female workers practice backbiting behavior with equal intensity. In a research that Kusy conducted with over 400 respondents, the backstabbing worker exhibited certain distinctive character traits. “If you notice that those above think ‘she’ is wonderful in spite of repeated accounts from those below her of backstabbing, team meddling, and manipulation, you are probably dealing with the chameleon,” Kusy says.
Then there are the connivers who gain respect for attacking the efforts of other workers and distrusting colleagues. While it may be hard to believe that any company leader would tolerate such unethical behavior, Kusy points out that “many superiors are easily duped into believing that these negative employees are ‘indispensable’ largely because these passive-aggressive workers are masters at convincing everyone of their inflated sense of importance and productivity.”
First thing that any aggrieved employee needs to do is assess the situation to make sure that there is no misunderstanding. If you can free yourself of any blame, then check to see if other workers are also sharing the same frustration. Having allies in the workplace can be powerful weapons in dealing with hostile co-workers so do your best to keep your office buddies close.
Secondly, watch out for some clues to the tactics of the typical job saboteur and if any of these thought come to your mind, you’re probably being targeted by a co-worker frenemy.
They’re gossiping about me
“From our research over 17 years, we have found gossip and backbiting are the number one killer of communication trust in teams. Nine
out of 10 employees experience this phenomenon in the workplace,” says Dr. Dennis Reina, an organizational psychologist and co-author of the book, Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization.
“Gossip is destructive because it damages relationships, invites retaliation and creates an environment of distrust. Ultimately, it causes the workplace to feel emotionally unsafe,” he says.
Before taking any action, aggrieved workers should differentiate between gossip and misunderstanding. Were things heard through the grapevine or did you actually hear your co-workers making untrue comments about you?
It’s crucial for employees to pick their battles selectively and with caution. As a good barometer, Dr. Reina recommends asking, ‘How would the person being talked about perceive the situation if they were standing there?’
If the gossip is about how you dress, talk, or the bizarre lunches you bring to work, let those comments roll off your back. It’s not high school and if you call attention to frivolous things, you could become labeled a “complainer” and likely lose an opportunity to complain if a bigger issue arises later on.
However, if the backstabbing employee is making rounds to other co-workers about the ‘poor’ quality of your work and making other unfounded accusations, these are things that need to be addressed immediately. Office gossip spreads fast and the more harmful it is the more likely people will devour it.
A good way to confront your nemesis is to send it via email. Be pleasant and non-confrontational but make a point to let the gossiper know when, where and what you heard. Be polite and friendly when you refute unfounded accusations. Close off the email with something like, “As you know, I’m doing my best as we all are. I really hope that we can overcome this misunderstanding because I think we would make a great team.”
No, you don’t have to be friends with the slippery snake, but if you put it in such a nice way as to be respectful and inclusive, you are likely to find a stunned and embarrassed backstabber. Remember the old saying— keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.
She stole my idea!
“If you are smart and consistently have good ideas, then it opens you up to having your ideas stolen by conniving co-workers. Especially if you are new and don’t know office politics,” says Lerzan Aksoy, professor at Fordham University and co-author of the book Why Loyalty Matters. Unfortunately, this is one of the most common complaints voiced by employees. When you spend days and nights agonizing over a presentation, it’s absolutely infuriating when you find that someone else has taken your words and copied and pasted it as their own. Aksoy suggests that the problem could stem from the fact that your great ideas are not being communicated to your boss in a timely manner— doing this eliminates the opportunity for conniving workers. “It’s very important to build a rapport with your primary manager and maintain communication with him/her about your ideas,” she says.
A great way to accomplish this is by sending email updates to your boss and colleagues about the progress of your work. You can also ask others if they had any suggestions for improvement on your ideas. That way, you have a documented record of your work and other people’s suggestions.
If your work has already been snatched, the best advice here is to talk to the guilty colleague. Be diplomatic and sincere when you let the thieving co-worker know how you feel. “I’m really hurt that you took this work from me but I also know you did it because you like my ideas. Why don’t we try brainstorming together next time so we can both put our talents to use?”
Depending on how friendly you are with your boss consider bringing him into the loop about a co-worker’s deception. Once put on notice, the guilty worker will be very reluctant to try to pull the same stunt on you again.
If you’re feeling like the fingers are getting pointed at you for things unrelated to your job duties, step back and honestly assess the situation.
“Start by considering what you may be doing, perhaps even unconsciously, that may make you into a likely scapegoat,” says Ben Dattner, founder of Dattner Consulting, an organizational management company based in New York City.
There might be legitimate reasons that you are the one getting blamed for oversight and if this is the case take the necessary steps to make amends. “If you are being unfairly scapegoated, try to focus on your work and on proactively helping others. People are much less likely to blame and single out colleagues with whom they have norms of reciprocity,” advises Dattner.
People who do a lot of blaming do it out of insecurity— they’re often not confident in their own abilities so they try to make someone else the appear as the incompetent one.
Insecure people are often terrified of confidence and ability so if you can just let your work speak for itself, it should be enough to scare of a sneaky co-worker out to ruin your efforts.
Also realize that your other colleagues are able to distinguish real fault where it’s required. So there is no need to panic that everyone blames you for every little thing. If people haven’t spoken up to defend you against the malicious office mate, it’s because they just don’t want to get involved in office politics.
Best advice here is to shrug off silly accusations and confidently refute the more serious ones.
Sometimes a co-worker will take it upon himself to be the voice of authority when the boss isn’t around. He may come to your desk and try to give you new projects to do, or distract you with unplanned meetings.
“If the problem is a bossy co-worker to whom you do not report, the most important first step is polite conversation. Often this type of behavior is done as a means of getting attention,” says Aksoy. “If, however, the problem is more that the co-worker is indeed a jerk, then he/she is probably not just being a jerk to you. Come together with other victims, and raise the issue to your management.”
A colleague who is trying to be your boss is insecure in his own status. Office maggots often prey upon co-workers who pose the most threat to their own success—bosses, the good-looking and smart workers who incite jealousy, and a colleague in line for a promotion— are often targets of manipulative workers.
Showing your confidence by putting your efforts in your work will send enough of message that you’re not going to be bullied into becoming someone else’s personal assistant.
Aksoy also points out that imbalance of power between colleagues is often a symptom of a management problem. “When employees are not clear on their responsibilities or are subject to favoritism, don’t feel supported…then infighting can be the result,” she says. “It’s akin to animals fighting over a shrinking waterhole.”
It’s all the more reason to bring this up with upper management on the colleague who thinks he’s everybody’s boss. Your supervisor will likely appreciate you for it!
If the actions of your devious office-mate are putting your productivity on the line, then you are being sabotaged and you need to put a cease and desist on the malicious worker.
“It’s helpful to first understand whether there is in fact backstabbing going on. It may be your own paranoia,” says Dattner. “As the saying goes, ‘just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’ You may need to confront the person and let them know that you’re on to them,” he advises.
Karen Young, a news editor at a large consumer publication found much success in the editorial content she produced. Week after week, her articles found themselves on the home pages of major portals sites like AOL and Yahoo, which brought her praise from her boss and even the company’s CEO. Her colleague, Matt was also an editor, but his articles were yet to be syndicated by any portal content partners. One day, he took Karen to the side and confided to her that other co-workers were making fun of her behind her back, “No one here likes you,” he said. He went on to tell her that he thought that perhaps she had some “mental defect.”
This is a classic example of job sabotage. A co-worker engaging with another in such mean-spirited and work-depleting dialogue serves no positive purpose other than to upset and disrupt the successful colleague from continuing in her productivity.
“I was horrified. How can a colleague say I’m mentally defective if I’m bringing the company’s Web site traffic into the millions,” Young says. “It’s just not appropriate. Clearly, he was just jealous of what I was accomplishing.”
To combat overt offenses from co-worker saboteurs, here is what Dattner suggests.
“Gently let the offender know that what they are doing is hurting them more than it’s hurting you,” he says. Ideally, your boss will stand on your side when you bring this up, but Dattner admits that especially in the corporate environment, “backstabbing is the rule rather than the exception.”
Still, if you’re in good standing with your managers and the kind of offenses imposed on you are egregious enough to hurt your productivity and the company’s bottom line, a wise boss should work with you to put an end to unethical behavior at work.
Because in the end, if you like your job and you’re good at what you do, why should someone else deprive you of opportunity to climb the corporate ladder of successes?
For more articles from Ji Hyun Lee, please check out:
The Politics Series: The Politics of Facebook Friend Requests from Your Colleagues | The Politics of being a Woman on the Job: Why can’t we all just get along? | The Politics of Being Young on the Job: Managing the Kid Boss | The Politics of being cute on the job: Are you too Sexy for the Workplace? | The Politics of the bad boss | The Politics of Office Romance
Everything in between: Tips for managing the Millennial Generation | When You’re Smarter than the Boss | Knowing When to Speak Up and When Not to |Equal Work, Unequal Pay: What to do if You’re the Victim of Gender Discrimination
Do you need advice dealing with awful coworkers, bosses and other workplace issues? Find the author on Twitter @JiHyun42 or email, firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell her all about it. You could be featured in an upcoming article!