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Should I warn the Newbie about my manipulative, backbiting co-worker?

Dear Office-Politics,

I work with a manipulative, backbiting woman of 32 who spends a great deal of time and effort on gossiping, cultivating cliques and especially by pretending to be your best friend to your face and talking badly about others behind their backs.

We just hired a well educated young woman in her mid-20’s. My colleague already is starting to butter up the newbie. Should I just keep my mouth shut and my head down, or should I tell the newbie to watch out when there’s a private moment? Thanks for any help.

Thank you,

Keeping an eye out


dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Keeping an eye out,

We admire your good-hearted, caring nature, since it sounds like you have the new hire’s interests at heart as well as the organization’s since no one benefits when a new employee’s early honeymoon goes sour and winds up in “buyer’s remorse.” Morale suffers, performance wanes, and tensions accrue. So as we’d say in the 60’s, “right on, brother!” That said, whether and how to take action totally depend upon the unique circumstances. And there is a larger issue we can’t help wondering about, both addressed below:

1) To Act or Not, That is the Question (and oh yeah, HOW TO DO SO SAFELY?) – How much power does the Overly-Political 32-year-old have? We call her Overly-Political (OP) since it sounds like she takes admirable political skill traits of networking, verbal mastery, skill at managing image and perceptions and creating such perceptions within the corporate airwaves, and she has pushed those normal strengths to extremes, rendering them political style weaknesses: BS-ing people while trying to look good herself, manipulating confidences and then mudslinging/sabotaging with trash talk, and politicking to disturbing extent at the expense of simply doing her job. Unfortunately, such self-serving, unethical people are also quite vindictive if you get on their bad side, so naturally YOU don’t want to end up on her list. If she’s this snaky and cruel to people she buddies up with, how tough might she be with a perceived enemy who has “blown her cover?” So the bottom line is to make sure that if you DO decide to protect the newcomer from applying for a life-time membership of the OP’s Naive Club, like many others, just make sure that you protect your own ass-ets. Do so by being sure you do one or more of the following:

~ Be sure the newcomer is not so buttered up that she blows YOUR cover and rats on you! Carefully gauge your trust and try to psych out the political style of the “newbie” by reading our Survival of the Savvy book teaches how to recognize such style traits (yes, operators are standing on call!). But seriously, the newbie might truly be more like the OP than you want to admit, in which case, you could become vulnerable.

~ Assess alternative routes for tipping off the newbie, ESPECIALLY given the above caution about her relationship with the Overly-Political, but even if she (as is likely) is a good-hearted, kind, ethical CHUMP (!), you still might consider more anonymous ways of helping newbie to watch out. A letter (not email, obviously), or someone with lots of power to tip her off? If you, only after really building trust and getting confidentiality assurances. We just are leery about such assurances. So….

~ Consider the power base of the Overly-Political. Does she possess more power than you, either formally by position or informally, since she still might have the ear of top management, get away with such behavior precisely because she has important friends. After all, often such behavior is continues as it has because someone powerful is tolerating it knowingly. The more power she has, the more careful you need to be. This does NOT mean you should cop out or opt out. Just don’t leave yourself with a target on your back doing water ballet in the shark tank, OK?

2) To Escalate or Not – Another broader issue involves whether you want to do something more far-reaching given this backbiter’s negative impact on the team, unit, department, division, or even enterprise. Do you consider her behavior injurious and toxic enough, and do you have the clout to make powerful people aware beyond the newbie (overt action) or to at least drop a note in the company’s suggestion box or any analogue to such private tip-off, whistle blower mechanisms (covert action). After all, even if you’re not a top manager, you sound like you are willing to take responsibility for being a “steward” for the organization’s welfare, reputation, and resources. And the OP (remember, stands for “Overly Political,” not “Obnoxious Punk”) may having a polluting impact on profit, results, customer relations, motivation, and the like. So weigh out the risks and rewards and make your decision. Just be sure that you add and hone enough ETHICAL POLITICS skill to the mix as you d o so: networking, assuring your power connections, tactfully sharing concerns, speaking in behavioral terms about her strengths AND your concerns about certain behaviors and their impact, and having your contributions well documented and in place for folks to trust in your value so that any danger is buffered.

3) A Riskier Move – One last consideration, of course, is to consider whether you want to personally approach the OP to discuss the issue. Has she done this trash talking about you? Are you in her inner circle? What’s the score there? Again, this needs to be preceded by knowing you could end up on her enemy list.

Let us know what you decide, and pat yourself on the back for caring about making our little planet a better place. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Warm regards,

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. 3 Answers to “Should I warn the Newbie about my manipulative, backbiting co-worker?”

  2. Hi,
    I work in CA. There was a lot of backbiting and politicking going on at the work-place. I identified one individual who was key to this. My best buddy at work used to initially speak to this person. Sometime later, when I discovered that the back-biting individual had already caused enormous havoc in my official circles, I cut myself out of his circle. I continued to be civil but aloof. He then befriended my buddy and within a month my best buddy for more than 6 months cut himself off from me, he refused to speak to me, he refused to take calls, he deleted mails I sent asking what the issue was and I was generally treated like dirt. Since I knew that the root-cause was backbiting, and I really liked my buddy, I endured this for 8 weeks. I don’t know what to do next ?

    Could you advise. I cannot reach my buddy through any channel now. Should I lose a good friendship because of backbiting? All for no fault of mine.

    By Maiden on Oct 6, 2007

  3. I have a coworker who has been here only 8 months and has managed to get most of the office wrapped around her finger. I called this out to my boss, that she was a BSer and of course he denied it. I can see her playing everyone and they are just all too dumb to see right through her underhandedness. She has tried to shame me and my sister who also works here. But all she had was an excuse which we did not take. She has picked my sister as the victim and my sister is nice and just thinks she is just being friendly. I told her she will turn on you in a heartbeat don’t act like a friend. Another instance, the accounts payable person had to deal with some of her accounts one day because she was gone and got gripped out the next day for taking on those accounts. Needless to say, she didn’t like her after that. All of a sudden the manipulator has gotten the accounts payable girl to turn her back on my sister as well. I feel like I want to put this chick in her place. She tries to kiss butt and be overly charming but I don’t buy into it or reciprocate. We work in a small office of about 12 employees and either they are just plain dumb or she is playing them that well. How do I make people see that she is playing them without being too aggressive.?

    By Shelly on Apr 16, 2008

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