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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.

  1. 7 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

  8. I have just lost my job due to a methodically, long term backstabbing and undermining co-worker. Sharing my story will not change my circumstances but it may be helpful for others to read.

    I was paid $18K + commission and I worked from home. Between my commission and my base, by year 3 I had brought my income to $54K. We as an entire team then switched firms, and with the different bonus structure at the new firm, I negotiated a base of $39K and offered to simply wait until the dust settled to negotiate a new bonus structure. In effect, I was exchanging upside potential for a more stable income. It was a good deal and I was happy with it.

    A backstabbing co-worker caught wind of the fact that I was making more in base salary than him. The guy is a brown nose, he even brought extra underwear and socks to the office. He had to come in at 6:30am because he was an administrative associate who needed to be around when markets opened in case a client wanted to place trades. I on the other hand am a sales guy, and nobody wants a sales call before 10am. As part of the move I was now working full time in the office with a flex day from home each week. I’d usually show up at about 9:30am and leave usually around 2 or 3. Some days were much longer when we did marketing events.

    When this guy caught wind that I was making more money than him, he started to beak off to the boss about me. The boss gave him a raise from his $33K to $37K, just under what I was making, but wasnt about to jack him above me just because he was whining. My boss gave him an opportunity to sell banking product to make extra money on commission – something he has done a miserable job at doing because he’s not a natural sales guy.

    This guy will stay in the office until 4PM, even though he’s perfectly inclined to leave around 2. He gives the impression he is working oh so hard, but I could see from my desk half the time he is on eBay or watching YouTube videos when in the late afternoon the boss is away. He also does a crappy job and he’s lazy. My team actually removed him from placing trades because things were getting missed. He was also removed from preparing the forms for the same reason, he did an incomplete job and there’s nothing more frustrating when trying to land a client than going back to them and saying you forgot to get them to sign the neccesary forms to open the account.

    I could tell the fix was on when the administrative guy was trying to interview interns to do a similar job to me. This guy knows nothing about sales and has never made a cold call in his life. He was also undertaking this project with the associate advisors’ wife, which was strange that she would be involved in the process at all. I was the one man sales and marketing department, and these people who had nothing to do with my job were recruiting people to do my job. If we needed more salespeople, it should really have been me doing the interviewing and the training.

    The people they hired absolutely sucked. The guy only made about four sales calls and then exhibited avoidance behavior and started puttering around on updating the web site and worked on making marketing materials in Word. I was completely out of the loop on these projects. The girl became basically an assistant to the assistant who was doing the backstabbing. Great for him; but totally useless to the business. We already had a team of 6; bumping it to 8 was just too much and a waste of money.

    I had the feeling like they were trying to prove to my boss that they could hire two people for what I was making so they could chop up my salary amongst the associate advisor and the administrative assistant. Eventually my boss was ready to give me a 40% pay cut and put me on straight commission, he went back on this and confirmed what I was feeling.

    As the next six months passed, I was bringing great accounts to the table (I’m outside sales, I dont do the closing). A million here, half a million there, another million. But all of my accounts werent closing, and some of them werent even getting chased. I brought in one particularly juicy account where they were dealing with a mutual fund company with exorbant fees and weak returns; should have been a shoe in. They only managed to land 15 cents on the dollar. Good thing I wasnt put on straight commission.

    Again someone was hired during this time to do a similar job to me. I trained the girl, gave her some soft pitch leads to build her confidence. As I was paid salary and she was paid base plus commission, I didnt mind handing off some calls to her.

    Then, I got put on draw plus commission. My 40% pay cut was solidified. Despite trying to negotiate it was forced upon me. Now my leads were my leads and I was getting paid the same as the girl I trained. I have 20 years of experience, she had months. This stung.

    To make matters worse, my own leads I had brought in the door were getting “lifted” by her. She would leave a voicemail message and then somehow the lead was hers. I had worked on some of these leads for YEARS and just because she left a voicemail message that they were now her leads didn’t seem fair to me at all. It made no difference to me when I was making my $40K base; but now that I was shafted to $25K draw against commission I needed those hot leads. I brought it up to my boss and we ended up splitting it down the middle. Which SUCKED. There was a bunch of good stuff in there that was lost – all because she left a voice mail or something.

    After a while of this, seeing as my transition to 100% commission started at the beginning of summer, I was going broke working. Nobody closes investment accounts in the summer. Rich people enjoy their summertime, markets are flat, and nobody wants to take time out of a gorgeous day to meet with an advisor, they wait until the fall. Part of my pay cut was that I got to work from home full time, which I did. I was going broke working, and just adding transportation to and from the office would have made it worse.

    Then the fall comes, and I am trying to get things on the go and to ramp it up. As I try to undertake the marketing meeting to plan out the year, I get fired. My boss actually didn’t want to fire me, but he was getting so sick and tired of hearing the backscatter from the rest of the team. The associate advisor actually came back and kept firing numbers at my boss demonstrating how I wasnt worth the money. My boss tried to defend me but eventually seeing as he was selling half the business to the associate advisor, he just didnt want to deal with it anymore.

    What made me know I was getting back stabbed and pushed out, was this. I made my boss an offer. How about I take a lay off, go on EI, continue working from home to close the leads I’m still working on, and just make straight commission at a higher rate. Apparently this “axis of backstabbing” had made it quite clear – no make a clean break. He must no longer be on the team. I wasnt allowed to work FOR FREE.

    While I knew I was getting pushed out for a while, that simple statement made it all make sense. If your not allowed, as a commission salesperson, to work for 100% commission with zip for base salary, there is more at play than any amount of numbers. There is zero risk in that type of arrangement.

    So what happened, in summary?

    1. This associate advisor and the assistant tried an experiment to show that I could be easily replaced by some student interns much cheaper and that they could get the same performance. This project as a demonstration completely failed. While my boss should have seen this for what it was and put a stop to it, they persisted.

    2. The hiring of an additional, inexperienced salesperson that we didn’t really need was more of a power trip. This girl would undertake the useless time wasting projects of the associate advisor without questioning it’s efficacy. She would also take orders from the assistant who for all intensive purposes should have easily been able to do his own job without much help seeing as he had backup support from another person even more qualified than him.

    3. The slamming me onto commission over the summer was an underhanded and unfair move, likely designed to try to get me to quit. While I did go out and look for another job at this time I did it very discreetly, and I’m quite happy that I did. Because the writing was on the wall. Further to that, axing me at the beginning of the fall was also another underhanded move. Right when I would be able to demonstrate my sales skills and put them into the wrong, the associate advisor ensured that I was unable to do so. The fact that I could not even work for free begets this – these guys want me OFF the team. No amount of number crunching can show that I am a cost centre when I’m working for free on 100% commission.

    4. There was sabotage going on. How I could bring in $14MM worth of prospective accounts and that they could only close $1.1MM is entirely beyond me. The associate advisor was responsible for the proposal process, and things were slipping through the cracks, not getting done and when he would go to close the account himself we would see $800K accounts just walking off and deciding to stay with their own broker. The admin guy at times I needed him to contact Credit to determine margin capacity on a few portfolios for a $21MM account I had landed. The guy kept saying that I hadnt sent him the right docs but it was brutally obvious he was just being an ididot.

    In the end these two have really hurt the business. At a more standard 50% close ratio I would have brought in $7MM in regular accounts plus a $21MM complex account. This would have resulted in $200,000 in revenue for the business. However backstabbing people with an alterior agenda do not usually care so much for the overall big picture of the business, they are more interested in acheiving their agenda and complaining.

    What was the big problem that caused them to do this to me? To be honest I dont really know. The admin guy was whining incessantly about my work hours. Im a sales guy so what hours I work do not matter, the number of prospective clients I bring in the door does. The admin guy has to be there to answer the phone. Both the admin guy and the associate advisor wanted people they could order around to do menial tasks; ranging from mailing birthday cards to mailing an entirely useless newsletter to thousands of people. The admin assistant could easily have handled the menial tasks and I clearly demonstrated that the monthly newsletter was actually quite a waste of time that actually hurt the business rather than helped it (there were stock picks in there that made money – unfortunately some of our clients werent invested in these stocks so they called in angry and transferred their accounts out thinking we were saving these picks for “better” clients than them).

    I never once got into any altercations with these two. Even when I felt I was getting pushed out, I just kept my nose to the grindstone and kept doing the best job that I could. Actually, if the associate advisor had not flubbed the proposals or the accounts I had brought in, then the numbers would not be against me at all. It was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Now I am looking for a new job. In effect I was fired because I was TOO GOOD at what I did and I made it look easy. These two wanted monkeys they could order around with low skill rather than new business. Case in point? I brought a $1.2MM prospect in the door. Associate advisor took a look at the portfolio– and decided not to make a proposal for it at all because the guy was invested in largely the same stuff that we would have put him into. In effect the guy was a PERFECT CLIENT. Just closing the account would have been hard because the guy’s other advisor was doing a good job. So HE DIDNT EVEN WANT TO TRY OR EVEN PHONE THE GUY.

    Sadly, I really like my boss and enjoyed working for him. These mandarins are leading him down the primrose lane to the eventual obliteration of the business. Unfortunately, this is not my problem. I have seen my pay cut, my job duties slashed, my responsibilities cut, watched as these two have repeatedly tried to hire people to replace me and I even trained who is now effectively my replacement – and I trained her well.

    Like the letter writer, I would love to see this admin assistant in a dark alley and sock him in the face. What will be even better just desserves, is to take a job with another group in the firm and to just kill it and become renowned as one of the best sales guys around.

    By Taylor on Sep 10, 2014

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