Confronting a Co-Worker Who Undermines You

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What do you do when a colleague has an agenda, and doesn’t mind steamrolling you on his or her way to fulfilling it?

There can be any number of signs that it’s happening: Perhaps they’re leaving you off email threads, or not inviting you to project meetings. They may be positioning themselves as the person behind your work, or telling others you report to them on a project when in fact you’re equal colleagues. You may even be getting signals from the boss that you’re not performing as expected when, from all you can see, you’re doing just fine.

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When you face this kind of dilemma, you have no choice but to act. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you’ll need to resort to angry, face-to-face confrontations.

Into the Light

Early on, you might be able to address the situation with a simple conversation. If you weren’t invited to a meeting, for example, you can approach the person who left you off the invite, tell them you’re sure it was an oversight, and ask them to include you in the future. Having that kind of conversation “puts the offender on notice,” said Kathy Robinson, founder of the coaching firm TurningPoint in Arlington, Mass.

If someone is determined to undermine you, however, handling the situation privately isn’t the right course. “Be really transparent in your communications,” advised Ingrid Goldbloom Bloch, principal at Mosaic Career Services in Boston. If a person seems to be holding back on information you need to complete a project, ask for it by email and cc: key people, including your boss. If he or she keeps leaving you out of meetings, send an email to all stakeholders that includes the information you would have shared at the most recent session, and ask them to invite you in the future (again, with the right cc:s).

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Including other people on the distribution list makes it more difficult to ignore your requests and needs, Bloch added. In addition, it backs you up with a paper trail if the situation escalates, and can provide your boss with a heads-up that something might be amiss.

Going Higher

Unfortunately, such tactics may not be enough to dissuade your nemesis. When that’s the case, you may have to look to your boss for guidance. If you’ve included your manager in your emails, the conversation shouldn’t catch him or her completely off-guard.

The situation will be more awkward if someone’s talking you down to your boss. In that case, Robinson believes, the first order of business is to consider whether your connection with your manager is as solid as you might assume: “If someone is directly undermining you and the boss is listening, that says you need to strengthen the relationship.” Take a look at yourself to make sure there aren’t real issues with your performance before going in to have the conversation.

When you do sit down to talk, keep the discussion focused on your work. Rather than asking your manager to intervene, ask for advice on improving the communications within your team. Remember that your boss has objectives to meet, and your work is a direct contributor to his or her success. In other words, your boss has a strong motivation to see that things operate smoothly, and probably has a good idea of the politics that surround the department’s workings.

Your boss may tell you to work out the issue on your own. In that case, you have an impetus to begin a conversation with the other person, this time with all stakeholders well aware of what’s going on.

It’s Good to Have Friends

One of the best defenses against someone who’s underhanded is to have strong relationships with others throughout the company. “Build relationships with people in other departments, on other teams, so people know you and your work,” Bloch said. When you have a strong reputation, it’s more difficult for someone to sideline you.

Dealing with office politics is never fun, but it’s an outright burden when you’re someone’s target. Just remember that you’re simply trying to do your job. By facing the situation professionally and forcing it into the open, you’ll protect yourself and discourage the co-worker from continuing on his or her course.

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6 Responses to “Confronting a Co-Worker Who Undermines You”

  1. Jeannette

    Once it’s apparently clear that a coworker is undermining you, it’s necessary to both confront him/her and HR immediately. If you don’t, this pattern will continue to the point where you appear completely inept. If the job is worth fighting for, then fight.

  2. Dezy jarvis

    Thank you for the fabulous article and insight on “undermining”. From my past personal work environments, I have encountered several of these ill mannerisms as well. One useful consideration is the determining “the fine line” . Being able to grasp the “undermining” act with “the fine line” of what it is and appears

  3. I have this exact problem with a co worker at the moment and I’m trying to find forms of words that won’t risk making things worse. We both work in a small office so that sort of amplifies any conflict. What sort of phrases should I use to talk to them? I genuinely do not mean them any threat at all, just want to get on with my work and doing it as well as possible.

  4. If you go out of your way to be nice to your coworker and this does not change anything, your tactic may be then to ask about any stress they might have in their life. “Are you stressed today?” “Is there something I can do to help you?” You may need to let her know that you feel a tension between you and you do not like it. Ask if she is willing to talk about it. If you simply have a nasty self-seeking person as an office mate, let her know that this is unacceptable and that you will take it to the manager. You don’t want to do that, so ask if there is anything you can do to correct her perceptions about you. Main thing is, you have to appear calm and in control. Her behavior is not acceptable in the business world. Best of luck~

  5. Why does everyone feel the need to ‘cc’ everyone? Why not be an adult and tell the person how you feel? Trying to phrase things a certain way or ‘cc’ key people seems more akin to PC sidestepping. More time and energy seems to be wasted having to defend yourself against a person who clearly has an agenda but it seems now that these people need to be catered to in a certain way? It should be viewed as a waste of time and resources and dealt with accordingly.

  6. Becky Willoughby

    I have a coworker who just recently (without being advised by supervisor) change my pay from salary to hourly. She has since impeded my ability to do payroll (one of my duties) I have advised supervisor of the situation, but as of this time it still hasn’t been addressed.