What Can I Do If a Coworker is Trying to Undermine Me?

What Can I Do If a Coworker is Trying to Undermine Me?
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The Basis

Is a coworker trying to undermine you? Jealous coworkers are like a bad penny: they never go away or seem to always come back. The following instances make a strong case that someone is working against you:

  1. A third party warns you, usually as friendly advice
  2. Your boss or someone else you highly respect suddenly starts behaving strangely
  3. A colleague’s words, actions and mannerisms suggest hostility towards you
  4. You sense people talking behind your back, trying to avoid you, or hiding something from you
  5. You get a formal show cause notice for something you were never a part of, or were only marginally responsible

Do Not Back Out

As the adage goes, “a winner never quits and a quitter never wins.” Never quit or back out. It is easy to retreat into a shell, fall into a rut, or become cowed down, and still easier to run away by changing jobs. But, chances are you will run for the rest of your career. Politicking, backbiting, slander, and plotting for one-upmanship exists in virtually every group, and just as mastering skills and competencies is essential for getting a job and remaining there, mastering hostile or unpleasant situations is indispensable for survival at work.

Coworkers try to run you down either due to some personal animosity or because they want to usurp your place in the corporate structure. Giving in is actually a disservice to the organization. Such people indulge in politics because they remain incompetent to get there by sheer competence and allowing them to do so means allowing an incompetent to rise high.


If you find yourself asking the question “Is a coworker trying to undermine me?” first understand exactly what is happening. Misunderstandings take place in normal work related interactions, and rumors thrive in canteens and other gatherings. Separate fiction and rumors from fact, and never go by assumptions. A particular coworker may not have anything against you. Don’t assume otherwise in ignorance and work against the person.

The following are some ways to confirm, or separate fact from fiction:

  1. Ask probing or follow up questions to people who provide “friendly advice” and cross-check the same with known facts.
  2. If your boss or a close colleague starts behaving strangely, ask them what is amiss.
  3. When you suspect someone is avoiding you, talking behind your back, or showing hostility, approach them and engage in a conversation. Usually their tone, body language, and eye contact tells you if something is amiss.

To confirm suspicions, provide a “test case” to test out suspects. Confide about something, entrust something important, or provide some other valuable information. For instance, make a casual remark “Phew! I goofed up with that customer yesterday by providing wrong information that made him sell his portfolio of stocks. Thank God no one noticed it.” Then closely monitor the situation. If the news spreads, or if the suspect makes attempt to find out how you goofed up, then you may clear your suspicions. If not, you may put your doubts to rest.

What to Do: General Tips

Having confirmed someone is indeed trying to undermine you, the challenge lies in what to do next. Introspect. The reason may be some misunderstanding or spite owing to some genuine shortcomings on your part. A subordinate, colleague or your boss might have looked upon you for help and you remained oblivious and did not respond. If so, apologize and resolve to make amends. The issue may also have to do with personality differences rather than any competence or specific issues. Understand such differences, identify whatever common ground exists, and cope the best way possible.

Help others and set standards in competence. Incompetence breeds politicking. Highly competent people and team players remain popular, and people rarely backbite against such popular figures. If they do, the backbiter themselves becomes unpopular, for the grace and competence of such starts never remain in doubt. Keep away from rumor circles and unnecessary socializing beyond what is needed. If the office is a minefield of politics, keep work life separate from social life. Concentrate solely on work at the workplace, leaving socializing and friends outside work.

Never reply in the same coin, or get aggressive. Spreading lies or counter-accusations leaves no difference between you and the accusers. If matters get worse, the company would simply punish both of you. Getting aggressive or physically assaulting the person, regardless of the provocation, can reverse the tables, and make you the aggressor. Keep any confrontation civil and maintain calm. Unfavorable power equations, such as the accuser being too close to your boss, might render you helpless at times. Bide your time, using the delay to prepare a strong case against the accuser. Revenge is a dish best served cold!

What to Do: Specifics

Taking specific action against people working behind your back depends on whether the plotter is your subordinate, peer, or senior.

The best approach is openness. Talk to the person, and if necessary, confront him to clear the air. Invite the person for a cup of coffee and tell him to the face something like: “I heard you are telling such and such. The reality is different. May I know why you are doing so?” or “I heard that you are accusing me. We have to work together in the same office, and such accusations, which I feel are unsubstantiated, will create difficulties for all of us. I would request you to desist, and remain as friends.” or “I would like to know what is bothering you, and what I can do from my end about it?” Asking specific questions and inviting suggestions very often takes the wind out of them, and they will desist in future. At times, the misunderstanding may be owing to vague communication that leaves the recipient to assume much, or the recipient having missed out on crucial parts of a conversation. Mastering the art of communication preempts many issues.

The rank of the person, out of reach co workers or those slimy enough to put on a good face in front of you and work secretly behind your back precludes a direct approach. In such cases, take the help of a common friend or trusted colleague, or even Human Resources. Involving the Human Resources department, however, makes it official. HR will order an inquiry and institute disciplinary procedures on receipt of a formal complaint. This escalates the issue to the point of no return. Only one among the two usually survives in the company.


Source: Author’s experience

Image Credit: freedigitalphotos.net/Ambro