A couple of years ago, I got a call from an old high school friend. We went to the same college but lost touch, and now she was considering whether to apply for a job at my company, with my boss. Given our history, I felt she deserved my honest assessment: The hours were long, the expectations were high, the bosses were tough—but the experience was invaluable.
A few weeks later, my boss approached my desk to get my thoughts on my friend. I told him she was a great candidate, one he should strongly consider. What she lacked in experience she would make up for in drive, I said. “She’s the kind of person who would do all she could to succeed here.”
How fitting. Because then my boss smiled and said, “Well, during the interview, I asked her what you had said about me.”
[Insert nervous laugh.]
My boss then proceeded to repeat the lowdown I’d given my friend, during what I assumed was a confidential, off-the-record conversation, just one old chum to another. When I heard him repeat the words “hard ass,” I blushed violently.
My first thought: Anger. I want to scream. I want to call up and confront this conniving, so-called friend right now. I want to renege on my recommendation.
Second thought: Denial. Maybe she didn’t mean to say it. Maybe he caught her off guard. Maybe she got home from her interview, played it back in her head and realized, “Wow, I shouldn’t have sold Caroline out.”
Third (and final) thought: Acceptance. She knew exactly what she was doing.
While I stammered efforts at damage control, he just laughed. (Thankfully, he’s the type to relish that depiction. But, of course, my dear old “friend” of a decade wouldn’t have known that.)
It’s sad to say, but there are just some people in this world who think that throwing others under the bus is necessary to get ahead. And whether someone spills something you said in confidence, blames you for a mishap, or “forgets” to put your name on an important presentation, her office backstabbing not only messes with your emotions; it messes with your career and your credibility.
But while you can’t change these unpleasant, unpredictable people, you can build a game plan that will stop them in their tracks. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned.
1. Choose Your Words Wisely
This is the lesson I learned the hard way: Don’t give anyone the ammo (or, er, the knife) to stab you in the back. When meeting people for the first time (or, in my case, giving the uninitiated the 411 on the office), don’t offer too much information too soon. This is also true in informational interview or networking-type scenarios, where you may feel particularly inclined to be helpful—but where you don’t know much about the person you’re sharing information with. Learn from my mistake and disengage.
And when it comes to the steady pipeline of workplace rumors, you can listen, but don’t perpetuate. Train yourself to save personal assessments of your workplace and colleagues for your inner sanctum: your significant other, parents, and closest friends (who don’t work with you). A simple “Hm, that’s interesting,” is a good enough reply for most office gossip. No need to be paranoid—but it’s a good idea to make pseudo-guarded your norm.
2. Build an Army
There are countless reasons why having an army of supporters throughout your company is good for your workplace well-being, but in this case, it’s also the best way to counteract a backstabber’s ploys—and even prevent them in the first place. If you have authentic relationships with everyone from your bosses to your peers to the assistants, they’ll defend your reputation, even when you don’t know it’s at stake.
That said, this isn’t just about “be nice to everyone”—keep people in the know about what you’re up to. Take ownership of your work, especially in group settings, and regularly seek advice from and run ideas by your team members and manager. I regularly seek advice from my superiors, share my latest projects, and discuss what I’m excelling in, as well as how I hope to improve. Doing that shows initiative and earns respect.
Then, if Mr. or Ms. Backstabber questions your dedication, “forgets” to put your name on a project, or monopolizes time in the conference room, it won’t sting you—because you’ve already communicated to everyone the awesome work you’re doing. You save face, and you nip the two-timer’s antics in the bud.
Another worthwhile tactic: Be generous when giving others credit, whether those people are bosses, peers, or even backstabbers themselves. This is good for two reasons: First, some backstabbers may back off if you’ve been kind to them in the past. And secondly, if a backstabber targets you nevertheless (like in my case), you boss and co-workers already know about your kindness. So if a random person tells them something off-color you said (ahem), hopefully they’ll take it with a grain of salt. When the backstabber’s fangs come out, the person they’ll trust is you.
3. Use Confrontation as a Last Resort
Some people will advocate that in a back-stabbing situation, you should go straight to the source, confront her shady dealings, and tell her you’re not going to put up with it anymore. But I’m more inclined to take the non-confrontational route, unless absolutely necessary. For one thing, some people thrive on knowing they stirred the pot and that they could wield power over you with just a few strategic conversations. In my case, I figured I wasn’t going to scare this girl straight. In fact, if I told her that what she said was totally inappropriate and could have cost me big, I’m pretty sure she would have struck again.
But if it does come to confrontation, keep it sterile, void of emotion, and with the goal of problem-solving. A simple, “Hi, I saw my name wasn’t on that presentation. Please send it to me, so I can add it before sending it on.” Or, “There must have been some misunderstanding about X, so I wanted to clear the air.”
Unfortunately, the more important you become in the office, the greater target you are for backstabbing. (Just look at Mark Antony and Caesar, one of the greatest backstabbing tales of all time!) So learn to handle it now. Then as you climb the ladder, your defense will be your best offense.
Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.
Caroline McMillan is a Charlotte, N.C. native and a reporter at The Charlotte Observer, where she writes about small business and entrepreneurship. She graduated from the journalism school at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and spent her last two years of college as the editor in chief of Rival Magazine, a joint publication between Duke University and UNC. She loves Tar Heel basketball, french-press coffee, making to-do lists and buying more books than her shelves can hold.More from this Author