Apr 05 2010

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Handling a bully at work

By Lily Garcia, The Washington Post

Do you have any advice for handling a bully at work? I have a coworker who is trying to do my job. She hides information from me and takes credit behind my back for work I’ve done. I know she also badmouths me to anyone who will listen. This is a small office with no HR, and really no chain of command other than the head boss, who adores her. I feel like I can’t win, but I need to fight for this job. The stress she creates has been unreal. She is smart enough to be very subtle and clever with her tactics. As an example, she is in charge of setting up appointments out of the office. I drove two and a half hours to my appointment, only to be turned away because she had not set it up. She was not even reprimanded, the whole things was blown off. She was told, “Don’t forget next time.” There are several incidents like this. How do I deal with her? I’ve confronted her and she denies everything.

I commend you for having the courage to confront your coworker regarding her behavior, but I am also not surprised that she admitted nothing. If she truly is angling for your position, why would she risk falling out of the good graces of your boss by confessing to sabotage? Meanwhile, you have given your coworker the satisfaction of knowing that she is rattling your cage, and further motivation to keep at it.

Your situation is a bit like a Chinese finger trap: the more you struggle, the more intractable it becomes. Your only way out is to relax: recognize that you cannot control your co-worker, and focus instead on regulating your own behavior.

The fact that you even know that your coworker is talking behind your back, hiding information from you, and taking credit for your work means that at least one other person in the office is looking out for you. Invest time cultivating your informants and allies. With the right intelligence, you may have an opportunity to scuttle much of the mischief your coworker seeks to create.

Building strong relationships with other people in the office will also insulate your reputation from your coworker’s disparagement. She can say what she wants about you, but her words will have little effect on the opinion of those who know better, and that includes your boss.

Rather than lamenting that your coworker is stealing credit from you, preempt her by ensuring that others know about your contributions. This is not the time for being low-key or modest. When you do something that you are proud of, tell others as soon as you can. If you are concerned about seeming arrogant or self-promoting, you can tout your accomplishments under the guise of excitedly sharing good news for the organization. Your coworker will only look ridiculous if she later attempts to claim responsibility for a victory that you have already announced.

All the while, keep very good notes regarding the subtle, yet important, ways in which your coworker is deliberately undermining your ability to get things done. Maintain a log of “forgotten” appointments and other destructive measures that she has taken in her calculated effort to make you fail or quit. One such incident could be written off as a mistake, but three or more such incidents in a short period of time signal either absolute incompetence or sheer malice. Either way, it does not look good. Rather than making yourself seem paranoid by running to your boss every time your coworker subtly angles her leg to trip you, take the time to patiently build your case. By the time you bring the issue to your boss’ attention, which you eventually should, you will able to tell a coherent and well-documented story that leaves little doubt about your coworker’s intentions.

I would also recommend not leaving yourself vulnerable to your coworker’s offensive by allowing her access to your schedule of appointments, your address book, your email account, and other mission-critical information. If someone questions why you set your own appointments rather than allowing your coworker to handle them along with everyone else’s, do not respond with an elaborate account of the scheduling snafu she concocted. Explain instead that you just find it easier to manage your own meetings. As satisfying as it would be, avoid surrendering the moral high ground by disparaging your coworker in return.

Finally, you can take comfort in the fact that, if your coworker is on a campaign to ruin your reputation, she will only end up damaging her own. Nobody likes a gossip, especially one who undermines the social fabric of a very small office. I can assure you that the other members of your team do not appreciate your coworker’s negativity and it will not take long for them to form an appropriate opinion of her character.

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