ask a boss

‘Is My Co-worker Trying to Sabotage Me?’

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Dear Boss,

A little over a year ago, a friend asked if I could help one of her colleagues, Amanda, find a position in my region. After speaking with Amanda, I found her to be smart, capable, and very much aligned with my professional values and interests. I alerted her to several opportunities and even coached her through a complex hiring process in my own organization to successfully land a position with us. Since Amanda has joined the company, she and I have gotten along well both personally and professionally.

Several months ago, I applied for a promotion and competed with a dozen other people for it. I was thrilled to receive the promotion and even celebrated it over lunch with my new co-worker, Amanda. The position requires me to work very closely with her and her team while managing my own staff, too.

A few weeks into the job, my new manager Kate told me that some people at the company were quite vocal about their disappointment in not receiving the promotion. I think Amanda was one of those applicants, because she was also qualified for the position and is a close friend of Kate.

Now there’s been a shift in my personal and professional interactions with Amanda over the last few months. What I thought might have been a collection of random oversights — forgetting to invite me to a meeting, or order keys for an office I need access to; not responding to requests for needed information, relocating work materials that I use without telling me — now seems like a potentially passive-aggressive pattern. Even worse, Kate, recently told me that Amanda said she was doing much of my work, and that I’m not providing her team with sufficient support or leadership for the work we do together. Amanda never shared her concerns with me in any form prior to reporting them to Kate and they are inaccurate, to say the least. 

To prove her wrong, I made a spreadsheet of all the projects and work I’ve done and showed it to Kate, who was surprised and impressed. It immediately ended her concerns about my work ethic or productivity, but she left it to me to sort out my working relationship with Amanda. (Amanda doesn’t report to her; she reports to a different manager at Kate’s level.)

At our most recent meeting, Amanda refused to help me several times when I asked, and I left feeling incredibly frustrated and worried that her conduct will reflect poorly on me. She and I both know that I can’t do my job without her — it’s essential that our teams work together.

How do I move us forward? I want to work well together and I want to produce good work for the sake of our organization and both our teams, but I don’t feel like my manager will be able to coach me around this issue given her friendship with Amanda. Do I bring up the promotion issue? Point out the pattern of oversights and denials around collaboration? I’m not sure where to start but I feel like she might try to sabotage me again if I can’t get the relationship back on track.

It sure sounds like Amanda is trying to sabotage you.

I’m trying to think of another explanation for her behavior and coming up short. If it were just the things you originally thought were oversights — forgetting to invite you to meetings, not responding to requests, etc. — we could write that off as incompetence. But combine it with her attack on your work to your manager and especially the fact that she claimed to be doing work that you actually did, and it’s hard to read this as anything other than Amanda deliberately trying to undermine you.

So, what can you do? It’s possible that talking to Amanda directly would help. It’s also possible that it won’t — if she’s deeply immature (and it sounds like she might be), talking with her directly could instead end up making her more committed to working against you. But I think it’s the best of all your options, and you can minimize the chance of a bad reaction depending on the way you approach her. Specifically, when you talk to her, you want the tone to be “I’m confused” rather than “I’m angry.” For example, you could sit down with Amanda and say, “Kate recently shared with me that you told her you were having to do a lot of my work, and that you felt I wasn’t providing enough support when we worked together. I was surprised by that, and I want to make sure that you’re getting what you need from me. I showed Kate everything I’m working on, so she’s not concerned anymore, but I really want to figure out how you and I can work better together. Can you tell me more about the issues you’re experiencing and what you’re hoping I can do differently?” And you want your tone here to be warm, concerned, and genuinely curious — not irritated or defensive.

You might feel disingenuous saying this because it’s giving more weight to her allegations than they probably deserve. But it’s a far more constructive approach than going in angry or defensive — and who knows, maybe there really is something you could be doing differently, and you should be genuinely open to hearing that if so. Most importantly, though, this approach is your best chance at disarming Amanda. By talking face-to-face with her in a warm, kind way and sounding truly open to changing something on your side, you’ll hopefully make it harder for her to see you as the villain who took the promotion she wanted. It’s harder to hold a grudge against someone who’s standing in front of you being kind — especially in this case, where you’re someone who helped her get her job! (Of course, this assumes basic decency on her part. If she turns out to a truly horrible person, you’ll need a new plan, but you won’t have lost anything by starting here.)

Depending on how the conversation goes, you could also finish it by saying, “If you do have any concerns in the future, would you come and talk to me directly so I can try to resolve it?” That won’t necessarily stop her from going to your boss first in the future, but it makes it more awkward for her to go over your head without telling you.

Best-case scenario, this conversation shames Amanda into changing her behavior, or at least makes her aware that you’re not going to stand by idly if it continues. Sometimes just realizing “ugh, I will have to have an awkward conversation with person X if I do this petty thing that I want to do” can be enough to curtail someone’s bad behavior.

But it’s also possible that it won’t. If you address this head-on with Amanda and the problems continue, at that point I do think you need to talk to Kate, your boss, about what’s happening. Obviously Kate and Amanda’s friendship makes that harder than you’d want it to be, but if Kate is going to be a good manager to you, you might need to give her a chance to step up and handle this instead. You can be sensitive to the friendship and still say something like, “I’m hoping you might have advice about my relationship with Amanda,” followed by a matter-of-fact explanation of the issues you’ve encountered, especially the recent times when Amanda has denied your requests for support and collaboration. If you’ve already seen evidence that Kate isn’t a good boss and lets personal relationships get in the way of professional ones, this might not be the right course of action … but if Kate is generally a good boss, she could be entirely capable of handling it well, especially if you’ve built up credibility with her.

One other option, if Amanda escalates or makes it hard for you to do your job, is to talk with Amanda’s boss. Again, you’d be framing it as asking for advice on how to handle the problems you’re encountering.

Ideally, though, a direct conversation with Amanda will turn out to be the nudge she needs to pull herself together (even if just because you’ll have called her out in a way she didn’t count on). It might take more than that, but I’d start there — and if nothing else, you’ll learn more about what’s going on and can adapt accordingly.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘Is My Co-worker Trying to Sabotage Me?’