Backstabbing in the workplace: how to deal with it.

New York is considered the workplace-backstabbing capital of the world. I believe that’s only because there are more offices there.  The situation in São Paulo or London is not that different, and I’m sure you must have the same problem at work wherever you live.

Backstabbing gets worse in times of change and instability, as people get more afraid of losing their jobs and tend to sacrifice basic principles and decency in order to keep their positions. Like me, you may have been backstabbed a number of times, it’s part of corporate life. However, I believe the situation is getting worse now, as younger employees, with immature emotional skills, lack the necessary patience for the hard work and time required to climb the slow steps of the corporate ladder, and do not think twice before creating situations that compromise the work and credibility of more meritorious co-workers.

Samson and Delilah by Mantegna, Andrea, 1500.

Samson and Delilah by Mantegna, Andrea, 1500.

There are some tips I can pass on to you on how to deal with sabotage and backstabbing  based on my experience in the corporate world,  although I’m by no means an expert on the topic. Sadly, these tips do not guarantee 100% success.

1. Let’s start by discussing the personality of the typical backstabber: they are usually popular and seem to be nice. They never lose their temper in public. They act behind your back and are cold enough to invite you to lunch at the same time. Everything you say while talking to them informally may and will be used against you, in a slightly distorted way, to fit their story and context in the future. They do not know as much as you do about the work, lack your skills,  and are generally jealous of all you managed to accomplish in your long career. They need short cuts, quick fixes. They are great at socializing and tend to personalize their contacts with clients and other co-workers to the point of inviting them to their houses, for example, or going out with them for drinks without any specific business purposes, as an artificial attempt to foster intimacy.  Their lives revolve around the idea of getting ahead no matter what, except by doing hard work. They tend to be passive aggressive, manipulative  and non-confrontational.

2. The first thing you need to do as you suspect someone is sabotaging your work or damaging your professional reputation is to analyze the situation from as many angles as possible: are you being paranoid? Give the person the benefit of the doubt.  Tell your story to  a couple of close friends (out of work) and get their reaction.

3. If you are sure you are being sabotaged, the next step is to get allies. Try and find out if someone else in the office is also suffering in the hands of the backstabber and see if you can build a case involving more stories than yours alone.

4. Confront the backstabber: invite him to a meeting and express your feelings, ask what is going on, how you can both work better together, and what he would like you to change so the atmosphere gets better. Tell him what you would like him to change. Have this meeting privately, so the person does not feel you guys are ganging up on him.

5.  If things do not improve, start collecting tangible proof (email, documents, careless or intentional mistakes) that this person is somehow sabotaging your work. Today, collecting evidence is becoming easier and easier, with all the digital trail people leave behind them. Take all the evidence and go two or three levels above the person’s position (her direct boss might be in on the sabotage as well, so you may be in trouble if you talk to him) and state your case as unemotionally as possible.  Make it all about the work, objectively. Tell the big boss that you are finding it hard to work with that person, explain why, show your proof, and ask if she could help you solve the problem.

6.  Start immediately looking for a new job, as backstabbers have a better chance of succeeding, due to their popularity and skillful aptitude to fake feelings and emotions.

7. Think that your life is a lot bigger than the work you do for a living.

Corporate life is hard, but I still firmly believe that competent, decent,  and hard-working people will eventually prevail in the long run, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.


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