I’ve made lateral moves to align my interests and strengths with the emerging needs of my employer. It requires concerted effort in an environment that lacks any real professional development structure, but has been worth it so far. However, I have a fairly new co-worker who has been riding my coattails hard since he started, with subtle undermining, and one overt backstabbing, and who even knows what else. Having a toxic competitor rather than a trusted collaborator on our team has led to a lot of anger, lost sleep, and too many days when I just didn’t want to get out of bed and go to work.

backstabbing co-workerToo often lately, I’m torn between not giving this person the satisfaction of pushing me out the door given all that I’ve worked for, and the liberation of handing in a resignation letter (drafted when the backstabbing incident came to a head) with a two week effective date. What do you think?

Nick’s Reply

I admire that, despite the lack of professional development opportunities, you have invested a lot in making a challenging work situation acceptable if not satisfactory – you say it’s worth it. But now that someone is trying to undermine you, I think you have to decide whether your job is worth fighting for. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

Look the backstabbing co-worker in the eye

If you feel it is, before you resign because of that toxic dolt, please ask yourself, do you have anything to lose by confronting him in the company of your boss? The philosopher king Marcus Aurelius counseled, “The second rule is to look a thing in the face, and know it for what it is.” (We’ll get to his first rule shortly!)

You know what this backstabbing co-worker is. Is it okay to let him push you out the door?

I’d say no, but that’s because I like to face things head-on, and because I know so few details about your situation that I can appear cavalier! Would it be worth looking this in the face by discussing it candidly in a meeting with the co-worker and with your boss? In other words, openly call out the backstabber’s behavior for what it is. Do it politely and professionally, but frankly and firmly.

Keep an untroubled spirit

This very direct approach assumes, of course, that you have already decided to resign and that you have carefully planned out your next steps if that meeting doesn’t yield a good outcome. Because maybe you won’t have to resign.

Perhaps you should not be so quick to be the one to move out of the way and let the dolt pass. As long as you have a good exit strategy, why not take this head-on and try to protect all you’ve worked for?

Toxic, backstabbing co-workers should not control our work lives.

Leaving may be your best option. I wanted to suggest an alternative that might not pose much risk, and that gives your employer a chance to do the right thing by you. Whatever you decide, remember what else Marcus Aurelius said: “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit.”

I wish you the best!

Would you take the backstabbing co-worker head-on? What other options might this reader have? Have you ever been undermined or run out of your company by a toxic co-worker? How did you handle it?

(The question in this column was edited from a reader’s comment on another recent column.)

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  1. Hey, Nick, hows tricks?

    As you said, not enough information, so far, to be able to start outlining possible next moves.

    For example, why is this person at that company, what is their goal, is this situation worth tolerating for some period of time.

    No one knows this new guy, so who will the boss believe in a 3 way that could become combative.

    I suggest a discreet meeting with the boss in advance to test the water. That person’s posture and response could clear up who else, also, isn’t your friend. Or maybe that person is but I’d want to establish this without what’s his name there, muddying the water and bringing embellishments.

    This may not apply but this is a good example of the value of having someone watching your back. Typically the outlook in this scenario would be brighter if one had an ‘uncle’/’rabbi’ in the mix who could ‘reach out’ and fix this. In all your planning, perhaps this is something you missed… Next time, yes?

    • @Paul: Good to hear from you again! Your advice is excellent. But as I said in the column, my preference is to go head-on and that’s what motivates my approach. This could of course backfire. But my intent is to prevent dual stories. If the OP talks to the boss alone, that’s one story. Then the boss talks to the toxic dolt for another. Then the fun begins and the politics kick in. I’d rather the “he said, I said” dialogue all happen at once with all parties present. I think only then will the boss be able to grasp the truth. (Of course, the boss may not want to hear any of it!)

      Of course, as I noted, this requires that the OP is ready to walk out the door. Risky, yes, but not if the OP has already made a choice.

      I agree that having someone to backstop the OP would be best.

      • Hey, Nick.

        I prefer the Machiavellian approach since it gives me more control. Or at least an attempt at control.

        I had a similar experience for a hired candidate; I was so happy he was being hired so quickly I neglected to get a lay of the land. He was later ambushed, bushwacked and sidelined by a senior. I waited for my guy to quit but he was a trooper and held on and eventually the bully was transferred. His behavior was tolerated because he had the keys to the city.

        So I learned the hard way to do as I was trained- not to skip any steps…

        • What was the step you skipped, Paul?

          • Part of the process to getting started on a Search is to speak with not only the principal decision-maker but to also all others on a solid/dotted line who have input as to who gets hired.

            This often appears to be tedious to the employer but from my end, I’ll be guessing who will suit each decision-maker unless I speak with them each to get an idea of their outlook on what they expect of a suitable candidate.

            This can get complicated from the start if not all these people are on their own same page. So speaking with these decision-makers gives me the opportunity to help them get their agenda straight, if necessary.

          • I probably ought to have mentioned that if after speaking with each of the decision-makers the situation appears to be irreconcilable, I have the choice of declining the Search opportunity. In our parlance, the Search would not be considered ‘viable’.

            ‘Irreconcilable’ would have its own definition, depending on circumstances. Just because it might be a challenging situation does not make it unworkable; it may just take ‘the right candidate’ to take on the position.

            For example, I recruited for an owner who is ‘difficult’ to work with and lacks empathy. This would be enough to scare off most HH’s but in this case, the position was enviable and after too long (!), I found a suitable recruit, possibly the only suitable candidate in all of L.A.

            He spent over twenty years in the position- I think they are going to bury him in the parking lot…. (It was a second career in case anyone is wondering why he’d spent so long in the same job.)

            • I’m completely fine dealing with “no empathy”, as those folks are usually very direct and less likely to insist on playing stupid power-trip games at work!

              We don’t have to be best pals to work well together; I just need the other person/people to know what they actually want and need AND SAY SO CLEARLY!

              I cannot read everyone’s minds, and it’s cruel and ableist to force me to try to because other people can’t be honest!

              My very most nightmarish situations have arisen because I stupidly thought we were all there to get the work done to ultimately benefit our patients/clients/customers. When even one “colleague” is actually out for some other secret and selfish goal, everything goes to hell.

              I wish I could figure out how to spot that “one bad apple” from the start so I could avoid them entirely! Or at least figure out how to guard against and foil their machinations to prevent harm to our patients AND myself!!!

              Why do bosses always seem to LOVE and trust(!!!) the most hateful, manipulative, unskilled, and unproductive employees????

  2. I would imagine, and hope, that every reply … as this one here … begins with “Not enough information to offer any meaningful insight.”

    As I sit here typing I have all kinds of advice, ideas, and suggestions running around in my head, but … not enough information.

    • @Chris: I appreciate your policy for giving advice. But we can never be exhaustive in our consideration of all factors around here :-). Or we’d have nothing to talk about! I try to state my reservations or assumptions, and also my “be careful out there” cautions when discussing a topic. My policy, which I probably don’t state often enough is, Never take anyone’s advice, including mine, without applying your own best judgment first. Bend it, shape it, make sure it fits — because it’s the recipient of the advice that’s on the hook in the end. Thanks for the reminder that our advice around here is worth what we charge for it…

  3. There is enough information for comment on only one thing.

    The OP broke the cardinal rule. “ fellow employees are not your friends” why is this guy teaching the leech?

    How is the leech back stabbing him?

    What is the leech’s relationship to the heads of the company?

    There is not enough to drill into on this, other than it sounds like the OP has made a choice or was ordered to teach the leech.

    I refuse to teach anyone at any job. Done it to many times. It bites you in the end.


    • “I refuse to teach anyone at any job.”

      I have to say that if I were your manager, that would put you on my list of people to replace, to the degree that you were “irreplaceable”.

      • To bad for you then. In my job I can be replaced but it cost the company hundreds of thousands in revenue to do so.

        Teaching people to do YOUR job has never been a requirement.

    • @Dennis: Sorry your experiences have made you so cynical, but I understand. I hope you get to work with some good people who earn your trust.

  4. I learned the hard way when a new CFO didnt promote a long-time sr financial analyst to manager and instead forced his long time director to hire me, an outsider. I proceeded to learn that my own employee was backstabbing and sabotaging my success along with my boss sabotaging my success because he wanted my job (and she wanted him to get the job) but the new CFO didnt like him nor thought he was ready to manage a team. My team was full of snakes and eventually I had to leave for my own health. the straw was when my Director gave me a negative performance review. we have 1 life to live, and there are snakes in this world. You decide if its worth it to let the snake win or not. in my case was easy to leave a new company that i had no allegiance to. However if i had been at a company for a long time I would have used my tenure as a strength and gone to HR and my boss with this nonsense and fought to get that person removed. Ultimately its culture and ethics – work for companies that display both.

    • Approximately 10 years ago I read a book named “Snakes in Suits”. Seems this circumstance displays the premise of the book and it’s much more common than we want to admit. Very thankful I’m retired after 40 years of this adolescent behavior.

  5. (Just call me Astoria Jim)

    When my BS (Back-stabbing) co-worker at our corporate advertising department was driving me crazy, our boss..who is still my friend 30 years later…was surprisingly pleased! He had heard that Madison Avenue agencies were filled with back-stabbers, and somehow that led to better work from all involved, and now his little department was ‘operating’ like a real ad agency.

    So, realizing I could not remedy the situation, I started job hunting: and found a better job, with a higher salary. But shortly before I left, I developed a program that was still talked about five years later. And when I left, my boss’ boss was upset that they lost me, and because it was common knowledge the back-stabber drove me out, my boss’ tenure was threatened, and he was let go less than a year later.

    But you know who replaced him? The back-stabber, who had apparently done a good job buttering up senior executives.

    God HELP America

  6. Cardinal rule learned from very long experience: the first one to speak is the one who is believed.

    Also, having advised the boss or two levels up, see if you can set up an entrapment against the snake, such as a recommendation that creates profits for the company: privately tell the bosses first and let them know you will quietly discuss it with the snake. Follow up to see what happens.

    I failed to do this on a multi-million dollar profit idea. The snake went on to become President.

  7. Again, as others have said, there is not enough information to provide sufficient advice.

    However, one thing I learned over the years is to document, document, document. I send emails to people I know will deny they said to do this or that. The email is date and timestamped. I have one boss who will say he told me to do such and such, when he did not. He will swear up and down that he told me.

    So, I now compose an email outlining the conversation we just had and what we agreed to get done. I offer the opportunity to correct what was agreed upon, in case I misunderstood “the ask.” I also keep notes in a workflow I set up in Excel. It did not completely stop the gas lighting, but it sure did cut down on it.

    • @Dee: We used to call that “Copy to file.” AKA, the nuclear folder.

  8. Employers hire and retain people who behave destructively for a reason, and would sooner get rid of “the squeaky wheel” who complains about the destructive behavior than the actual problem person who damages their coworkers and ultimately the organization.

    I have no idea WHY employers consistently choose to keep manipulative, deceitful, hateful, narcissistic, and sociopathic staff, but in my experience, they are always preferred and promoted.

    If you’ve decided to leave, anyway, then confronting the jerk on your way out probably won’t hurt anything, but I am certain that it won’t make anything better, either.

  9. Very accurate. So, document, document, document and try to set up the snakes.

  10. First If you are in a commercial for profit company then protect yourself to keep all benefits severance etc… in case someone in So called HR hires a Backstabber. Then you keep your personal integrity and quit without financial consequences.

    If you look at the definition of Human and Resources, that adds up Resources that are beneficial to the company. They (HR) flunked on their basic duty by hiring a person who will be liability by “blowing off” the good staff. I thought HR people had diplomas in psychology and prediction of human behavior? Psychology as taught in modern universities is an utter failure and liability to society. The smartest people in human behavior that I have met are Women who have had babies and raised successful children and Combat Veterans, with actual combat experience. (Yes there are others but usually that sort of experience is the most solid, in judging people)

    My point being is HR should have caught this “joker” at the front door, even if they have great technical skills. What is the point of hiring one back stabber, when that back stabber can blow 10 good guys out the door within a year.

    With that said is follow Wes’s advice and just document everything after you have identified the back stabber.

    • @Peter: Good point. Where is HR when you need them? There’s no telling who they will side with — depends on which outcome protects HR (and the company) the best.

  11. Sorry to go on so long but this is how my backstabber got her comeuppance.

    I stepped into a temp to perm position for which I was well qualified. The position was meant to relieve the load on a long-time staffer who was tight with the director. The work volume was growing, the staffer had been out sick for a while, and had young children. The work itself was not hard and largely involved using numerous documents and invoices in the departments computer file.

    The problem was that the staffer over the years had built the files in such a way that it took going through multiple levels of subfiles after subfile that were not logically named or ordered to find what you needed. Old stuff was on top and new stuff was buried. It was impossible to do anything quickly as it took 5-10 minutes of searching to find each document. The staffer would not allow changes to her file system to make searching easier. She was supposed to give me most of my training but was out sick or working from home a lot of the time. Then her nanny quit and she was even less accessible for assistance.

    Part of my job was to set up payment for certain invoices after I calculated the payment amount from file info. An invoice would go to the staffer who just filed it in the same place as the paid ones and then told me to look for it. I found most of them and paid them in time, but there was an important one for X that she did not tell me about stored in a file labeled “X paid invoices”. I stumbled on it in the nick of time but getting the check out in time involved the Sr. VP. My goose was cooked and I was told that I would not be kept on. At that point, another colleague told me that I was probably the fourth or fifth person the staffer had sabotoged one way or another.

    On my last day there was a unit meeting with the director on another project and I took a risk. I mentioned that some document controlled by the staffer for the project was hard to locate in a badly named subfile several levels down and that much of the difficulty I had in general, like not seeing the X invoices, was due to her filing things where they were hard to find. The staffer started stammering about that was her way of filing things, the person who keyed me on the sabotage was grinning from ear to ear, and the director told the staffer that, starting immediately, all pending invoices were to be put in a top level file labelled “Unpaid bills”. The rest of the files were to re-done to keep active work on top and old stuff archived. The staffer left that day without saying goodbye to me.

  12. In a commercial organization everyone has one mission…to make that organization successful, and everyone has a vested interest in that success.

    Everyone, including the boss, has one major task that has the highest priority even over their technical jobs. You have to collaborate well, That’s the glue that holds an effective team together.

    Collaborate together means from the standpoint of quality production/service you have each other’s backs. It’s nice but not necessary that you like each other. As a manager I expected people to be professionals and being profession means you understand that basic mission and behave accordingly. The height of professionalism is Attila the Hun & the Pope working together to make a great pizza.

    Though the details are lacking, it appears that the writer has been there long enough to work him/herself into a good position. We can assume they did so with support and encouragement from the formal and informal organization…who recognize the value adds. And that he/she knows how to play nice with others. Meaning in this case the writer’s claim is likely valid.

    We don’t have to assume this. The Back Stabber (ake BSer which serves double duty for a likely other behavior..bullshitter) is a newbie.

    As a manager over the years I’ve had people butt heads, dislike each other, bad mouth/back stab them. People are people and there’s bad chemistry at times. But there is a line. Back stabbing goes over the line. It’s not bad chemistry it’s bad behavior that undermines a team.

    Here’s what I’d tell the person. And in a sense it’s a test of his/her manager.
    Because much of this is the manager’s job. To manager & lead people. That manager may/may not know what’s happened, depending on the size of the team. Assume the manager is oblivious and can’t read minds.

    Schedule a meeting with the manager. Keep your cool and tell the boss what’s bothering you…aka bitch. It’s your call if you want to threaten to leave, but if you go that route, have a viable exit plan. I’ve seen too many people fall on their sword…to find the boss doesn’t yank it out of the way. If the boss is a conflict avoider nothing will be done. Don’t let it fester. It’s a handoff..your problem is now the bosses problem. What transpires will clarify any exit thoughts. And you’ll learn something very valuable about the boss.

    There’s 2 variables of not playing nice. 1 is where an established member of a team is being BSed by a newbie and the other #2. is where a newbie is being BSed/ambushed by the established team member(s).

    The writer has been hit with #1. Here’s what I did with similar cases. I’ll call a meeting with the newbie. Trust but verify..see if there’s an issue and if so if it’s salvageable. Possibly if I have enough organizational wiggle room and it’s mostly a matter of poor chemistry transfer the newbie out of the way. Usually this can’t work. Organization’s too small. If not, it might work to remind the newbie the basic job…to have co-worker’s backs, not stick a knife in it. then brief the complainer & really pay attention. Check with both weekly. If it happens again, most likely the newbie is gone.

    Sounds harsh. It’s not. It’s risk management. The manager has a demonstrably valued, and respected performer who’s presented me with a situation disrupting what we can assume is a working team. And whether stated or not, a potential loss of said valued person.
    On the other hand the manager has a person of unproven potential, who has not played nice so says a reliable source & which I’ve found reasonable doubt.
    This will soon force me to choose. And faced with a choice like that…it’s a no brainer.

    As to the 2nd scenario. Going to the boss would again be a test of sorts. Again the boss will be forced to choose. I wouldn’t be happy to find I had cretins working for me, and would effect corrective actions. So don’t assume you’d be forced out. I’ve seen managers fire valued craftsmen because of ongoing crappy attitudes and not playing nice. As in the other case if you find the boss is a
    conflict avoider, you picked up some valuable info. And get out of there. That boss is why you got ambushed. I can assure you when this happens, it’s happened before and will again. You don’t want to work there & be glad you found out before you wasted your time there.

    I’ve also done as Nick suggested call a meeting of both of them together. Which might work if it’s only chemistry issues. But both need to be their professional best. Which in my attempt one wasn’t. I’d met with each prior then together. Didn’t work.

    In sum when faced with this kind of behavior, you need to engage your boss. It’s there job, hand it to them. What happens will give you very useful information

    My above views were addressing work/functional issues. Entirely different call if it entails toxicity, bullying, disrespect, harassment etc.

  13. No. Everyone does not have one mission. Most are out for themselves and can be the backstabbing kind.

    • Wes, I defined it, I didn’t say everyone accepts & does it.

  14. ?

  15. I am going to suggest people read about what is called High Conflict People in the books written by Bill Eddy. Pick the title that best fits your needs. Too often we are naive or try to handle these types of people in ineffective ways. Or we don’t handle our bosses in the most effective way when a High Conflict Person is involved. Many bosses cave in to this difficult person and we lose.

  16. To AUTUSTIC AMONG YOU way up top

    Because the bosses are the same personality types. People prefer those like themselves.

  17. I have a question. It generally takes a while to find a new job. If you have already gone to your manager and your issues are dismissed or no reason is provided. How do you keep your head down, and retreat from your issues until you can secure a new job? I really love my work but my my gut tells me something is going on. How do I keep my head down and keep my paranoid thoughts at bay while keeping my confidence high.

    • I don’t have any really good advice, but I can say that Xanax helps.

      A little. :-(

    • What you’re describing is called “seeing the handwriting on the wall”. And a big part of that sinking feeling, is lack of control. Shit’s happening and you seemingly can’t do anything about it.

      Sounds like you’ve tried the boss route for some solid info. And that’s not working.

      You also probably discovered the sin we all make…while you were happily doing what you love, you didn’t take enough time to take care of #1.. the TLC of your network and/or build one. When you’re staring at or think you are, a termination you have that “oh shit!” moment.

      How you keep your head down and keep going is to start your side gig, but with a high priority. No genie is going to grant you a new job. Your side gig is to put your own project together. “Get Snoopy A New Job” Not easy but it offers you a lot more control over events then you’re dealing with now.
      !. In for a penny, in for a pound. If a change is to happen, best if it’s something you’d like to do. Identify that something. Sounds like it’s what you’re doing now . That makes it a little easier. Because that aligns nicely if you’re plan is to ensure a paycheck, which for many of us could mean doing more of what we don’t like.
      2. Define the kind of person, organization, company, industry(s) you’d like to work with.
      3. Define your own (ideal job, and a back up acceptable job)
      4. Put together your “marketing material” to reflect them. Resume, linked in profile, email pitch, Not some BS but an honest pitch. Put together a cover letter that explains your value add.
      5. Turn #2 above into a list of targets you’d like to join. This you keep up to date. If one falls short, add a new one.
      6. research them. That doesn’t mean start banging out job applications to their sites. Sure posted jobs is useful info but hold the trigger.
      7.Be willing to bet whilst you were working at that job you loved…your network got anemic
      8.Now with plan in hand breathe life back into the network you have, and expand it. People will be willing to help you. The info packet/plan you put together will help them to help you. Many of these aren’t in your office. Figure out where they hang out professionally, show up.’ve read this blog. flip the process. Go after the hiring managers and other inside advocates to make your case. Which is I do “my thing” very well. You need that value. I’ve got it.
      10. A good by product of this approach will be application by invitation (from that manager). Don’t sit around shotgunning applications to job boards and web sites.
      This is not a guarantee you’ll save your job, or get one, but the odds will be better than inactive underlying dread.
      The above works internally in large corporations which are usually nicely silo’d & like different companies
      You will have complete control over doing this. You will find having control over something is motivating. It will keep you well occupied. If your fears are groundless, it will still be well worth the time & likely adaptable for where you are. If your fears aren’t groundless, you’ll have a great head start.

  18. Don’t get so psycho about this. Just carry on and find the new job. Get over the neurotic stuff

  19. Ain’t that the truth! One thing i’m surprised by is the amount of men commenting about this subject? Because if you want to study these toxic deadly beasts in the wild just go to an office staffed with WOMEN! I call it the MONKEY TREE I coined the phase myself after seeing a documentary about primate behavior,and how the females ruthlessly undermine each other for dominance to procreate with the silver back (BOSS) Humans think were so evolved ahh NO!
    So why do Male bosses allow this? because its his primal instinct to let it happen to inherit the strongest most savage ruthless female so to be his second in command.