A 45-year-old IT professional—let’s call him Dave—and his co-worker were both up for a promotion. “It was a coveted spot, with compensation around $400,000,” explains career coach Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. “The co-worker started to plant things in Dave’s head, like ‘I think the manager is saying this,’ or ‘I heard someone say that.’ Dave, an already insecure guy, started to unravel. He’s not working there anymore and is currently looking for a new job.”
In the workplace you’ll encounter the good, the bad and the ugly, says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, the co-founder of SixFigureStart, a career coaching firm.“Some co-workers are really good and you can count on them at all times. Some are bad, which means they just don’t know what they are doing and they make mistakes. Others are ugly, meaning they are out to get you.”
We’re not talking about a co-worker who takes credit for your work or occasionally alienates you in the office, says David Parnell, a legal consultant, communication coach and author. “Career sabotage is a different animal altogether, generally rooted in Machiavellianism, revenge or malice.” The underlying intentions are insidious and quite threatening, he says.
Alexander Kjerulf, an international author and speaker on happiness at work, says if a colleague consistently withholds critical information, shoots down your ideas in meetings, starts rumors about you, refuses to help or give advice, or tries to make you look bad in front of the boss—you’ll want to watch out. “Something ugly is happening,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says.
Other signs sabotage may be in the works: You don’t receive a promotion or responsibilities you logicallyshould have gotten; cold or averse behavior from management that is (seemingly) out of nowhere; sudden and unexplained alienation by individual co-workers or even entire cliques; or unwarranted and continuous kind behavior from someone that was formerly aloof, ambivalent or even aggressive, Parnell says.
Why might a co-worker try to sink your career?
“One reason is that most workplaces prize individual achievement over and above anything else,” Kjerulf says. “The person who gets the bonus is almost always the one who gets the best results for himself, not the one who goes out of his way to help others. This encourages competition and makes people try to hold others back.”
Others might try to sink a co-worker’s career because they feel threatened. “It could be that they are intimidated by you and your talents,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says. “They may want your job outright, and making you look bad may allow them to get their foot in the door.”
Kjerulf adds: “If someone is struggling at work and feels insecure in their job, they might react by also trying to bring down others.”
And finally, we have mean-spirited people. “They have no empathy and thus have no compunctions about sabotaging a co-worker if it will advance their agenda,” Kjerulf says.
Luckily, this isn’t common in most workplaces.
Parnell believes that much of the reported ‘sabotage’ is little more than rationalizations, self-handicapping or outright denial of shortcomings. “Protection of our self-esteem is a top priority at the subconscious level. Cognitive dissonance swirls around personal failings and often it is more palatable to displace blame into the ether rather than into one’s lap.”
Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says: “I think it’s the exception when someone will go out of their way to sink your career. But unfortunately it does happen to unsuspecting individuals who work hard and think the best of others.”
If you suspect a colleague is trying to sink your career, here’s what you’ll want to do:
Don’t assume bad intentions. “I believe that we should be extremely careful and never assume bad intentions from the start,” Kjerulf says. “If that co-worker is ignoring you, he could be sabotaging you–or maybe he’s just really busy or he’s having a bad day”
Give people the benefit of the doubt. If we all run around mistrusting others, we end up creating a miserably unhappy business culture. You’ll want to be absolutely sure that your colleague is trying to hurt your career before you go any further.
Be alert. If curious things are happening at work—like you didn’t get that raise you were promised or colleagues start acting differently around you—you’ll want to think about whether someone might be out to get you (or your job).
“Sabotage is usually a calculated, strategic methodology,” Parnell says. “Gossip, an evolved method of safely leveling the power of alpha leaders, is usually the weapon of choice for a saboteur. Unfortunately, due to unwritten social contracts in the workplace, the subjects of gossip are usually the last to hear it. So if sabotage is at your doorstep and you’re not actively looking, you can easily miss it. The best way to remedy this is to set your radar for signs of you-centric gossip.”
Confide in a co-worker. “Talk to some co-workers you trust,” Kjerulf says. Without vilifying the co-worker you think is trying to harm your career, explain how you see things and ask for their opinion. “Maybe you’re completely off base and hopefully they’d be able to tell you so.”
Thanasoulis-Cerrachio agrees. “Having an objective ear is vital here.”
Take notes. Keep notes on what is happening so things are clear, in case you end up talking to your boss or HR about the situation, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says. Also save all related e-mails.
Confront the culprit. Once you’ve discovered that you are a target, consider yourself warned and take action to mitigate any damages, Parnell says. “One of the best ways to protect yourself is ingratiation. Guilt, empathy and sympathy are powerful motivators and the most direct way to extract them is by befriending your saboteur and gaining a position within their camp. While on the face this may seem weak, some of the most powerful nations in the world use this very method to infiltrate and overcome an enemy.” In the words of Michael Corleone, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Kjerulf suggests you say something something like: “I’ve noticed that whenever I send you an e-mail asking for help, you never reply. Also, in our department meetings you criticize my ideas very harshly. It’s been making me feel pretty bad. Can we talk about this?”
Don’t sabotage the saboteur. If you suspect someone is trying to sabotage your career, be the bigger person. “Don’t be that person who sabotages others,” Kjerulf says. “Make it a priority to be there for your co-workers, to always be willing to help, to offer advice and to help them do better work and have more fun on the job—no matter how they treat you. If we all go in with that attitude, we’ll create much happier and more profitable companies.”
Take it to your manager or HR. If all else fails and you’re not able to resolve the issue on your own, take it to your manager or Human Resources department.
Keep your options open. If a situation is toxic and isn’t improving, perhaps you shouldn’t be there. “A smart person always has an updated resume and is always networking to find better positions,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says.