Backstabbed at work? Here’s how to deal with it

Have you been betrayed by a colleague? Here’s a gentle guide to handle backstabbers in the workplace

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I’ve been backstabbed before, and it doesn’t feel good. Especially not when it happens in the workplace, by a teammate who is supposed to be working harmoniously with you to achieve a common company objective.

Rather than isolating backstabbing or undercutting incidences as ‘office politics’ [which is more of a fancy term], it’s better to think of it as part of human relationships. As long as there are people, there will be politics, simply because politics is a result of people with conflicting agendas, in competition for power and opportunities, and who do not subscribe to the notion of playing ‘fair’.

An eye for an eye is not recommended

Some people believe in reacting to backstabbing by doing the same to the backstabber. But that’s fighting fire with fire. Seemingly enticing, this method isn’t the best way to go, as it will only result in a bloody aftermath. While you may inflict harm on the other person, you are only lowering yourself to a behavior, which you detest in the first place. Remember the Golden Rule, which is not to do onto others what you don’t want others to do onto you.

I believe there is an alternative, better path. Your objective here isn’t to harm others, but to protect your interests and honor your position in the workplace.

Dealing with backstabbing at work

Here’s a gentle guide to handle backstabbers in the workplace:

Align yourself with higher powers

Aligning yourself with higher powers in the organization is useful as both, a pre-emptive measure and as a mitigation strategy against backstabbers.

Why pre-emptive measure? When potential backstabbers see that you are on good relationships with the senior management people, they will think twice about usurping your position or undermining your worth in front of others. By backstabbing you, the person will only be stepping on their own feet and inflicting doubt on their integrity—and that wouldn’t be very wise of them.

It is also a good mitigation strategy because when the senior management knows you, they would also know what is characteristic of your personality and what is not. So when people try to badmouth you or accuse you of wrong doings, it is less likely to find favor with them, especially if the accusations are not true to your character or personality. In cases of any doubts, the management can always clarify with you directly, since there is an open communication channel between you.

Most people backstab because they want power and career advancement opportunities. When they realize that you are on good terms with the senior management, some backstabbers may even align themselves with you to get on their good books. I say, if you can have an additional ally in the workplace, why not? Don’t close yourself off from them—but do approach the relationship with caution.

Step out of your circle

Some people keep to the same circle in the organization. They have lunch, chat, and hang out with the same people every day. Does this apply to you too?

While it’s good to have a group of close friends in the company, don’t confine yourself to that circle. Extend your social network and get to know the other people in the organization.

Your influencing power in the company is correlated with the number of people you know, the depth of relationships you have with them, and their influencing power. By building strong relationships with co-workers, you create an impenetrable barrier for yourself. It’ll be hard for anyone to undercut you since people know you and want to fend for you.

On the other hand, if your relationships with your colleagues are strictly functional [meaning you only talk to them when you need to get work done—nothing more, nothing less], you make it hard for people to care for you. Backstabbers can easily usurp your place in the organization.

Do damage control

Steps #1 and #2 are helpful to protect yourself against backstabbers. But what if you have already been backstabbed?

Just like what you instinctively do when a fire breaks out—you take steps to minimize damage, immediately.

If the backstabber has tarnished your reputation by badmouthing you, you want to repair your reputation. Do fact finding to find out what were the negative things said about you and who they were said to. Then, address those negative comments by explaining yourself to key stakeholders. Be objective and use facts as much as possible.

If the backstabber sabotaged your work, nip the problem in the bud quickly. For example, I once had an ex-colleague whose teammate went behind her back to cancel her focus group booking and used her slot for his own focus group instead. After she found out, she could only react in shock and book a new, later slot for herself. This resulted in delay of her project deliverables. What she should have done then is to bring up the issue with her teammate and ask him to book a new slot, rather than take the new slot herself. By not standing up for herself, she had given him the ticket to walk over her—not only in that instance, but in the future too.

If the damage has already been done, then pick up the pieces and make the best out of the situation. For example, let’s say the person successfully sidestepped you and took your place in a promotion. You can’t ask the management to retract the promotion, but you can learn from the experience and become a smarter person.

Once bitten, twice shy

How did the backstabber backstab you? Did he steal your idea and claim it as his own? Did she badmouth you in front of superiors? Did he try to sour the relationship between you and your co-workers?

If your colleague stole your idea, don’t share your ideas with him/her the next time. Protect your material and don’t reveal them until the presentation itself. If he/she tried to sour your relationship with your co-workers, strengthen your relationships with them such that the backstabber can’t come between you and them.

Let go

Sometimes, the damage is irreversible. Your promotion opportunity gets stolen. The credit for your work is taken by someone else. People buy into the negative things said about you…

If that’s the case, let go. You can only do so much before it becomes a fruitless battle. The sooner you let go, the faster you can move on with life. Worrying and anguishing over it isn’t going to change anything. Instead, focus on the things you can affect. For example, your work.

If the situation is serious, consider changing jobs. Update your resume, approach recruitment agencies and head hunters, check the classifieds, and seek out new job opportunities. Take actions that will move you forward. Beyond pre-empting and reacting to backstabbing, return to the roots of your employment—which is to add value to the organization. Don’t get caught up in office politics, for it is merely part and parcel of working in an organization. What is your role? What are your responsibilities? What results do you need to deliver? Focus on them and deliver your work with excellence.

Confronting the culprit

If you’ve been at the receiving end of office politics or backstabbing at work, one of the things you may decide to do is confront the person involved, speak to him [or her] and sort out the issue. Irrespective of the outcome of the confrontation, you should decide to do this only if you are open to forgiving and letting go.

  • Call and tell the person that you’d like to meet and speak to them in person. Preferably, meet at a venue outside the office premises.
  • Be upfront and speak your thoughts, be calm and clear. Express what you have heard from others, or felt. Be prepared with the evidence to support your allegations, but avoid name dropping.
  • Be as nice as you can, even though you are convinced that the other person is at fault. Remember, you’ve not gone there with the objective of revenge.
  • Once you’ve had your say, ask for their side of the story.
  • If the other person is honest and confesses, they will also express their reasons for doing what they did. You may also discover that you may have unknowingly wronged them in the past and this could be the beginning of a resolution.
  • If the other person keeps denying, you still have nothing to lose. Their body language and facial expressions will reveal whether or not you’re being deceived.


This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing magazine.

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Celestine Chua
Celestine Chua is a blogger, coach, and founder of Personal Excellence, a leading personal development platform to help you achieve excellence in life. Download her free e-book 101 Things To Do Before You Die now by signing up for her free newsletter.


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