Beware of Back-Stabbing Coworkers

By Larry Buhl, Monster Contributing Writer

Think you've been stabbed in the back at work? If so, you're not alone.

In a 2008 national survey by The Creative Group, half of advertising and marketing executives responded that a current or former colleague had tried to make them look bad on the job. In addition, professionals of all types say they had suffered from sabotage on the job. In an online poll asking, "Are you aware of a coworker trying to make you look bad or sabotage your work in the last year?" nearly three-quarters said yes.

Those numbers are not surprising to Dr. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute. He says that employee sabotage is one of the most prevalent forms of on-the-job bullying, a phenomenon that itself is far too common.

Many Forms of Sabotage

"Sabotage can happen in any organization, but some forms are special to the industry," Namie says. "In creative fields, it may take a passive form, such as not contributing to the group effort. In healthcare, a seasoned professional may withhold vital information, which not only hurts the new employee but also affects patient care."

Workplace saboteurs come in several types, including:

  • Belittlers, who hurl put-downs, demeaning remarks and disparaging comments.
  • Credit Thieves, who steal your ideas and grab the glory when a project is successful.
  • Finger Pointers, who pin the blame on others when the project goes wrong.
  • Rumor Mongers, stirring up drama by spreading lies and half-truths that destroy reputations.
  • Slackers, who shirk responsibility and foist duties onto others.
  • Scorched-Earth Managers, who will undermine or even fire a smart, capable worker when they feel threatened by brains and talent.

A 2007 survey conducted by Zogby International and commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute had even more bad news about workplace bullying. In 62 percent of workplace bullying cases, when made aware of bullying, employers worsen the problem or simply do nothing.

Before You Respond

How you handle sabotage or other bullying can affect your career prospects. You don't want to come across as a pushover, but you shouldn't overreact either, according to Megan Slabinski, executive director of The Creative Group.

"Not everyone who slights you is doing it on purpose," Slabinski says. "Before you confront someone, see if you may have played a role in the problem, or if your colleague wasn't aware of the issue. It's also wise to ask a mentor for candid feedback."

Slabinski also recommends looking for patterns before crying foul. "If it's happened a few times, it's definitely time to speak up," she says. "If someone is purposely trying to make you look bad, you want to let him or her know that you're aware of the situation, and you're not going to let it continue."

Guarding Against Sabotage

If you're certain you've been the target of sabotage, Namie offers several remedies:

  • Get Allies: Know that the bully will have allies, so you'll need all the back up you can get.
  • Go Three Levels Up, If Possible: A bully's boss may be in on the game, so go above their heads to make your case.
  • Don't Get Personal: "Instead of saying how you were hurt by what happened, show how sabotage is causing the business to suffer," Namie says.
  • Ask for Protection: Again, make your case business-related, not personal, and explain that your productivity can improve if you're not constantly looking over your shoulder.
  • Prepare for Your Next Job: Unfortunately, whistleblowers can be blamed for their own fate. If things go from bad to worse, know that you may have to leave the job you love.

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