Bully at Work Moody Boss Karma Office Gossip No Picnic Back stabber Plug your Ears Moody Boss

Itching to tell off a toxic, backstabbing co-worker

Dear Office-Politics,

I truly have enjoyed your many columns. I think they provide a valuable service by helping people navigate the work place and work effectively with different people.

Your columns regarding dealing with office princesses, brownnosers, backstabbers, eye-rollers, those desperate for attention and divas in their own minds (or gosh forbid! a combination of all of them) are extremely instructive. Your points about not reacting to them, doing so diplomatically or bringing concerns to supervisors all are well presented and well taken.

I submit, however, that to many, it would feel so very good to tell off a toxic, back-stabbing co-worker. Chew them a new one. Bring them to tears.

Is there ever a good setting or circumstance to do this? Obviously, doing so in an office in the middle of the day is out unless you want to be out for good by 5 p.m. Doing so at company functions outside the office also is unacceptable. What if it’s a weekend and you run into toxic person in a club or supermarket, and especially if they say something nasty to you first or provoke it? When are they fair game?

Thanks for any advice.

Itching to Tell-off Coworker

Dear Itching to Tell-off Coworker,

I’m glad you are benefiting from the site. Your letter is probably best answered by Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman. I will send it to them.

My quick take on it is that the social boundaries you perceive in the office are invisibly present wherever you go. Gossip travels everywhere. Think of the many politicians who have gotten into trouble on their vacations for drunk driving or whatever… Better to keep your lips zipped. It will be interesting to see what Rick and Marty advise.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Itching to Tell-off Coworker,

For some people, and it sounds like you are one of them, it would feel good to unload on one of these co-workers. That is why so many people loved the line in Bob Dylan’s song “I wish for just one day you could walk inside my shoes – then you would see what a drag it is to see you.”

Other folks, because of religious or spiritual practice or a feeling of not wanting to lower themselves to the other person’s level of being hurtful, wouldn’t feel good afterwards. So, even from the perspective of how it would feel afterwards it could be a mixed bag.

From the standpoint of career management it is not a case of pros and cons. It is mostly a bunch of cons. If this co-worker is so political, he or she very well may have ingratiated his or herself with someone in power. You would be showing them you are on to them, insulting them and giving them ammunition to use against you, especially if there is a witness. He or she is also almost definitely the type of person who will try to hurt your career. If you tell us that you have more power and more powerful friends than this co-worker, we would still advocate a different approach then you would like to take. In that case, we would suggest being clear and firm about his or her behavior if it is ever directed at you. Also, why not use your network to have the co-worker reprimanded or, if the situation warrants, fired? This is safer to you, has more impact on the co-worker and is better overall for the organization. We have seen many situations where the overly-political co-worker was able to shift the focus from their own behavior to “Did you hear how he talked to me?” The end result: ‘You lose.’

So in summary our advice is not to confront in the way you described even if it is out of the office. In our opinion the risks definitely outweigh the rewards.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Good Luck,

Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success

cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

Share and Enjoy

  1. 6 Answers to “Itching to tell off a toxic, backstabbing co-worker”


    As much as I know that there are people that would love to take revenge on a back-stabbing co-worker, I believe Dr. Brandon and Dr. Seldman are correct, that doing so may feel good in the short term but it would boomerang on you long term. I think holding one’s tongue is best, as frustrating and painful as that might be. The situation they described is all-to-real to a friend. But he just had his annual review in which he received a healthy raise and high praise for working with others in the office. And this is a validation of his strategy of keeping his head down and focusing on his work to the best of his ability. I think it is an inspiration and example for all.

    Again, I thank you.


    By Letter-writer on May 22, 2007

  3. In the real world things aren’t that easy. Sometimes, you just have to turn the other cheek. Perhaps telling a manager about what happened will be beneficial. Just leave it there.

    By Bonnie Dial on Dec 7, 2007

  4. After working in my office of 41 employees for three years, funding has been cut for my position. I work in a federally grant funded position. I have three co-workers that I consider tattletales. I follow policy. If they don’t follow policy and I ask that they do in order to complete my job they report to my supervisor that I am rude. These people do not follow policy, rarely work an eight hour day and take other personal liberties. I don’t care and I have never commented. The real reason I’m losing my job is that I know our federal funds are not being spent according to the grant stipulations and these people. I told my supervisor that I don’t believe what we are doing is right as far as the funds. I also said these people were unhappy with me because I ask them to follow policy. They bad mouth me in front of other co-workers but everyone is afraid to complain or stand up. Look what happened to me! What can I say on my last day of work. I have found new employement as an administrator for a large federal office. Thank You

    By stressed on Jun 12, 2009

  5. I would like some advice on how to handle myself concerning a back-stabbing co-worker. It happens when I am out of the office. This has been told to me by the co-workers listening to this person. Then when I come into the office they barely speak to me – it has not always been that way which really bothers me. I treat everyone with respect and love the people I work with. However, it is difficult to be kind to her knowing that she talks about me behind my back. I do strain to be kind to her. I know she can feel that I am stressed about it though and others can feel it as well. I was told she is jealous of me and the work I produce. She tries repeatedly to undermines me and constantly runs to the supervisor with bogus complaints and anonymous emails. Her behavior reminds me of a tattletale highschool girl – She’s in her late thirties and I am 50. My supervisor says she and my manager are aware of the situation and have allowed her to work when I am not in the office. They said they are not sure how to handle the situation as they are puzzled as to why she is behaving this way. She does have a reputation for being obsessive and controlling and if anyone does anything differently that she is used to she gets rattled. My boss asked me if I was sure she bad mouths me to my co-workers. I asked in a very clear unemotional way as to find an answer without to much co-worker discomfort. They said as soon as I leave she begins and they do not know what she has against me. They said they keep quiet when I am around as to not rock the boat and get in the middle. I didn’t even know there was a middle! What does one do and what actions does one take when they are innocent and one becomes the focus of another’s attack? How do I handle myself so as to not create the middle my coworkers are understandably afraid of? I know she complains about me because my supervisor told me that she is trying to undermine me. She is sickening sweet to my face and since I know what she does behind my back, I really have trouble being nice to her. This has happened to me before and I never said anything to the supervisor and wound up having to furnish proof that I did not do anything wrong and it is exhausting! Eventually I clear my name but I do not want to be the brunt of a bully again. Please help me to stop being a target.

    By Linda on Nov 15, 2009

  6. I read Linda’s query and can relate to it cos I am experiencing the same at my office, I am looking for a reply to Linda’s query.

    By amrita on Dec 20, 2009

  7. Everyone is going to be a target of someone at the office. On a particularly bad politics day, layoffs were looming and some people were taking the low rode and trying to smear others reputation by spreading false rumours and attempting to make others look incompetent. I was driving home after and in traffic I saw a great bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It said “everyone is someone else’s idiot”.
    It made my day.

    The only advice I can give is that if you do your best, it does get noticed. If you refuse to give into the politics you will be respected. One approach I have taken is going into the bosses office and telling them that I wasn’t impressed with the politics going on and if they hear any nay saying about me to please go for coffee with me and clear the air.

    As I am a hard worker, I don’t fear the politics but it does bum me out. I have always found it best not to give into the backstabbers. As far as I am concerned, they back stab for one reason only – to protect themselves as they deep down inside feel incompetent and smoke screen their perceived inability to produce good work by smear campaigning others they perceive as more effective.

    Just my two bits, spend them as you will :)

    I hope this helped.

    By Worker Bee on Mar 24, 2010

What's your advice?

(You can also tweet it to @dearOP)

− 4 = four