When to warn others about a toxic coworker?
March 22, 2013 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Our new coworker has been hanging out a lot with another coworker who is known as a liar, drama generator and just generally selfish and hurtful person. Because he is initially quite charming, she has no idea of his "other side." Do I tell her what everyone else knows or is that just talking trash and I should let her draw her own conclusions?

It is particularly trying for me because this is common knowledge in the office, but she doesn't know that side of him yet. This is only her second week here and she told me she already feels like he's her "best friend." So it's strange to hang with her when she is just totally unaware of something everyone else knows.

He is known in our office as being charming, but ultimately dishonest and hurtful towards others. I have witnessed these events personally, it is not hearsay. I don't want to give details. . . suffice it to say that he has lost three close friends and a number of not-so-close friends due to his deceptions and screwed up behavior-- this is not run of the mill assholishness, more like some kind of deep psychological problem.

We used to all be friends at work but it's been just in the last few months that his true colors have shown and he has lost friends left and right. However, we all act professionally at work and from an outsider perspective it's not apparent that anyone really has issues with him.

I feel guilty about saying nothing, but also would feel crappy about just telling her a bunch of horrible stuff about our coworker. I think she can already tell that I don't particularly like him- is that enough?

Should I just watch her slowly figure it out? Should I say something vague, give a hint? Should I avoid hanging out with her if I feel I cannot keep quiet?
posted by abirdinthehand to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Wait and let her find out on her own. She will not believe you until she experiences the issues you have firsthand, and pointing it out anyway may render her resentful and frustrated if and when that time comes. At the very most, maybe you could say, "I'm glad you two connect. I personally have not had as good an experience with him, so I hope you'll understand if I am not interested in spending time with him." But even that's a bit much IMO.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:40 PM on March 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

Keep things professional. You do not know this new co-worker well. She may be worse than her new "best friend." Telling her stuff about him could lead to her telling him and the boss that you are making slanderous accusations against him.
If she brings him up to you, raise your eyebrows, look a bit surprised, and excuse yourself. Eventually she will figure out that he is not who she should be hanging out with if she wants to buddy up to you.
posted by myselfasme at 7:40 PM on March 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

I have found that 90% of the time, telling people this sort of thing is like when a friend is dating someone terrible, but telling them just leads to them digging in their heels and going "NO YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND THEM!"
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:53 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Don't get in the middle of it. If this person really loves drama, you are giving them nothing but fuel if you try meddling.
posted by chiquitita at 8:12 PM on March 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

How's about if you just start including her in stuff you (plural you) do? Ask her to lunch, chat with her at the water cooler, like that. That is, give her options.
posted by rtha at 8:13 PM on March 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

Sometimes talking about the poison person ends up feeling like participating in the poison-crazy-ness. A factor to weigh.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:15 PM on March 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

I agree with rtha. The main thing is to establish a relationship with her yourself, so that when she eventually perceives his lameness, she can trust others and rely on better relationships.
posted by Miko at 8:16 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having gone through this myself, I would strongly suggest that you don't say anything. After first being very charming, a former boss started to show her true colors to a couple of us -- very verbally abusive, pathological lying, cruelty, bullying, etc. Only the two of us were her targets. All of this took place behind closed doors. It was like Jekyll and Hyde. If the two of us even hinted to anybody else about what was happening, they didn't believe us -- even though they'd worked with us for years and knew we were truthful. They would kind of look at us like we were exaggerating or just too sensitive. We learned not to say anything.

Finally one day one of the other people overheard a tiny bit of one of the boss' tantrums, and came to us and said "I know you told me what she was like, but I didn't believe it until I heard this." The others never saw that side of her and talked about how wonderful she was. It's one of those things that you'd never believe unless you had gone through it.

Telling her stuff about him could lead to her telling him and the boss that you are making slanderous accusations against him.

This is very possible and could lead to really bad consequences for you.
posted by la petite marie at 8:21 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I was the new person in the office the "toxic" coworker in our office went out of her way to be nice to me, to talk trash about the others, since she could have a "fresh start" with me. I had a coworker tell me to watch out for her, but I was pretty oblivious.

A few months later I was figuring it out for myself. Probably told the toxic coworker some things that were a bit more personal than what I'd like her to know about me now, but really no long term harm was done by figuring it out for myself.
posted by fontophilic at 8:24 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think everyone else is right - saying something could backfire on you. Just go with the subtle hints - not engaging if she wants to talk about him, maybe saying you haven't had good experiences.

The exception is if you think he might somehow hurt her. You haven't said what it is he has done, so you need to use your discretion if you think she might come to some sort of professional or personal harm through associating with him; in that case a warning might be merited.
posted by catatethebird at 8:28 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The reasons I haven't believed others who told me things like this was because they came across as vindictive and as acting out of hatred for the person they were warning me about. In hindsight I still think that and trust them just as little.

Another thing that can misfire is the use of vague generalities. He's really dishonest, he's really whatever. The difficulty is identifying an example of one thing he did to be dishonest/manipulative, and stating that as a matter of fact. It has to be something that's not open to interpretation. e.g. He was having an affair with Annie and with Betty at the same time and they didn't know about each other. He can still easily find ways round it (we hadn't agreed to be exclusive, etc... You know the drill) so try to stick to things that a reasonable person would agree was wrong, but if it's a fact recounted unemotionally and without editorialising, you have much more credibility. You have to find a way of stating it briefly, too, so boil it down to essentials ("theft" is less subjective than "betrayal" for example, the latter is going to bring y ou down a rabbit hole of he said/she said.) /She may not believe you outright but she's more likely to take what you said into account.

A good example is from Coronation Street a while back, where Hilda Ogden's lodger Eddie, an ex-con, is visited by an old cellmate who just got out. He thoroughly charms everyone and after he leaves, Hilda comments on what a nice guy he is. Eddie (who has proven his good character time and time again, so we don't doubt him) looks worried and says... " We'll, maybe I shouldn't say this and I hope everything has changed since I last saw him. But when I knew him, he was a thief." Presumably Eddie knows first hand that he's a thief, he doesn't go into detail, simply states this as the fact it apparently is.

That's another thing, don't get drawn into arguments, just say that you hope she'll have a better experience but he was recently cheating on Annie and Betty simultaneously. If she presses say you don't want to slag him off, you just want her to be careful.

If there's nothing he's done that you can boil down in this way (which I understand as it's often key to how these people operate) you might say nothing or you might say "just be careful around him, he's not what he seems." It would be preferable to say nothing, but if she's enthusing directly to you about how wonderful he is and how she's about to trust him with something important, you have to weigh that against watching her step out in front of a bus.
posted by tel3path at 11:16 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would appreciate a word to the wise. Short and understated, but an opening if i want to know more.

I've seen this done matter of factly ("not everyone gets along quite as well with him"), much like "he's a thief" above.

I've also seen it done in a complimentary tone. Here's a recent example from my life. "She is fabulous, isn't she? so smart and passionate. she's going to be a real leader once she gets a little more experence. She just excels at X and Y. I don't know if she has done much Z, do you know? she may have." Even in the midst of my infatuation with this person's work, i could hear the warning that (though she is in many ways great) she's a little inexperienced and may have a blind spot around Z.
posted by salvia at 11:24 PM on March 22, 2013

Please be careful about dropping hints. Fir one thing it won't protect you from accusations of slander AFAIK, for another, I had somebody use hints to warn me about a gas lighter. I don't know what they intended but all they did was help the person gaslight me! To this day I'm distressed by what they said and wondering if they were in on it.

I vote that if you have something definite to say, say it.
posted by tel3path at 12:15 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would suggest you say something about him exactly once, and avoid overtly bagging him - just mention something he did (preferably something you, personally, were witness to), framing it as an "I" statement - how co-worker did such and such, it made you uncomfortable. And then avoid saying anything else, unless asked.

This is coming from someone who has been on both ends of this equation (as the person who knew about the toxic co-worker, and also as the person who was clueless about the toxic co-worker). I do genuinely wish someone had said something to me - but on the other hand, if you come off as someone with an axe to grind, your input is unlikely to be taken seriously.
posted by Broseph at 12:19 AM on March 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

Due to unfortunate circumstances, I tell every single new hire that joins my workplace to keep track of their working hours to ensure they get paid correctly. Some of them do, some of them don't, but all of them have problems with being paid correctly. It hasn't backfired on me yet. That's not to say that it won't, but the fact that nearly three quarters of the staff have had problems with their wages in the past 2 years is a defence in itself.

How likely is this new individual to get drawn in? I'm dealing with 16-year-olds, for whom this is their first job. If this person is older and wiser, I'd be less inclined to say something.
posted by Solomon at 3:13 AM on March 23, 2013

When you say it's just in the last few months that this person's "true colors" have been shown, what do you mean? People go through phases. I'm not sure a few months is enough to really label someone a toxic person. Or did you just all find out at once that toxic person has been this way all along?

I'd just say something like, "Oh, cool. [That person] isn't my favorite person ever, and I know other people have had 'issues' too, but to each his own." And then never mention it again, just be obviously unenthusiastic about him when she talks about him. Eventually she's got to say to herself, I wonder why everyone dislikes X so much? UNLESS, you start seeing that new person is getting sucked into the same old thing that's the toxic person's signature M.O. Then maybe a specific warning about a specific thing. (i.e., "Oooh. I wouldn't give him money. That hasn't worked out for people in the past.")
posted by ctmf at 6:18 AM on March 23, 2013

I was the new girl in a situation exactly like this. Normal Coworkers warned me repeatedly about Crazy Coworker and didn't believe them. In fact, I thought they were trying to undermine Crazy Coworker (my new Bestie!) due to some weird issues of their own.

Until Crazy Coworker turned her Crazy on me. And suddenly all those warnings made sense. Luckily for me, our boss knew all about C.W.'s brand of crazy and believed me over her, but it could have gone much worse for me and seriously impacted my career.

Does your boss know about this toxic coworker? If your boss is aware of how he is, then I would let it go and let New Employee figure it out on her own.

But if there is a chance that Toxic Guy could seriously damage New Employee's reputation/future prospects/ability to do her job if and when he turns on her, then I would do your best to warn her at least one more time.

And be supportive when the sh*t hits the fan. No one ever said "I told you so" to me, for which I am grateful.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:05 AM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would do, and indeed have done, some variations of this advice: I've seen this done matter of factly ("not everyone gets along quite as well with him") ... I've also seen it done in a complimentary tone. Here's a recent example from my life. "She is fabulous, isn't she? so smart and passionate. she's going to be a real leader once she gets a little more experence. She just excels at X and Y. I don't know if she has done much Z, do you know? she may have." Even in the midst of my infatuation with this person's work, i could hear the warning that (though she is in many ways great) she's a little inexperienced and may have a blind spot around Z.

It is also a good idea to include new person and get to know her, but be careful not to be too friendly till you can tell what kind of person she actually is, and be careful not to say anything to her that could be damaging if she repeats it to toxic coworker.

In my case, we had a toxic coworker who was actively working to undermine me and my boss to further his own ends. It took us a while to figure the details out (though we could tell he had a huge ego and did not trust him), but in the meantime I was dealing with his assistant, and was being helpful to her just as I normally would to anyone, and because I liked her, also going the extra mile sometimes. When she came to trust me, she told me what our toxic coworker was trying to do to us, and we were able to (mostly) counteract it.
posted by gudrun at 7:41 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think she can already tell that I don't particularly like him- is that enough?
I think so. You don't say whether Toxic Coworker has done something specifically to you, only that you witnessed some things. I think that if that's true, these aren't your stories to tell; you will come off as gossipy and unprofessional, even if she believes you. The most that I would say is, if asked, "I don't really care for him, but I'd rather not go into it."

But honestly, and maybe she was just being facetious, but if after two weeks she feels like this person is her "best friend" there isn't a damn thing you can say that will make a difference, so I'd steer clear of the whole thing. I wouldn't exclude her but I would be careful around her until I got to know her better.
posted by sm1tten at 8:09 AM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with giving her some options for the moment when she realizes. It is really really common for the most damaged person in a group to befriend any new arrivals and-- as far as possible-- cut them off from the rest. After a while the new person will feel beholden, and trapped. The best you can do for them is to make sure they know they won't be rejected by the others because of this association.
posted by BibiRose at 8:30 AM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Whatever you say, assume it will be repeated to toxic co-worker, and let that guide your decision.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:43 AM on March 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

I think it's kind to want to warn the noob, but, instead, I'd keep an eye out for the noob getting in too deep, and just befriend the noob as you would anyway. If Noob seems to be acting on Toxic's advice, or out of his depth, re-consider.
posted by theora55 at 11:07 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think if she senses you have reservations about him, that is enough provided she has any brains. Giving her options is a good idea, too, since if this person is really horrible, he might try to isolate her and influence her opinions on the rest of the staff. It's good to give her both some independent data and a place to go if she starts to get bad vibes from him. It is also a good way to get to know her, since, as some of these answers have already pointed out, she might turn out to be as bad as he is. In such situations, it is usually better to let the person figure things out for themselves lest they think you are the one stirring up trouble.

If you really feel that he might do serious damage, and if the subject comes up naturally when you are talking to her, you could say something along the lines of "yeah, it's always tough being in a new situation, but you seem savvy enough to know that it's not a good idea to be too trusting too early. It will take you a bit of time to get the full picture." That might prompt her to ask if there is anything she needs to know, in which case you could respond along the lines of some of the responses above, e.g. "not everyone has had a good experience with X, I have personally witnessed ABC behaviour."
posted by rpfields at 11:48 AM on March 23, 2013

No advice to offer here, but these are two books that have helped me navigate hidden agendas & [un]healthy work environments.

This one is especially helpful for those who've been burned by an initially Friendly person. Charisma is a hallmark that helps guide future encounters: The Sociopath Next Door.

And this one has practical ways to reform assholery, get rid of non-reformable assholery and avoid hiring assholery in the first place: The No Asshole Rule.
posted by yoga at 1:52 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

i think you should say something without too many details, then drop it. you had a falling out with the toxic coworker, and you just want to encourage the new coworker to be careful. qualify it by acknowledging that it looks like office drama, you don't want to poison her relationship with the toxic coworker, but given how you feel about the situation you would feel bad not mentioning anything. say you're willing to go into the details of your opinion of what happened, but only if she wants to know, otherwise you're not going to bring it up again. if she does want to know, only talk about how you felt and the behavior you observed, and don't talk about what you think the toxic coworker was thinking or what their motivations were.

i'd think the majority of people would understand what you mean by your initial, vague comment. the important thing is that you're giving your new coworker the power to decide what to do with that information. it's up to her if she just wants to ignore it, or if she wants to know the details, or if she wants to give the toxic coworker a chance to prove them self.
posted by cupcake1337 at 3:13 PM on March 23, 2013

I did this once with great success. What helped me was that I knew what Toxic had said about Newbie. I didn't know Newbie, but I didn't want another victim. When I found Newbie alone one day, I sat with him and told him that Toxic has said [blank]. I was warning him so he wouldn't be blindsided. We ended up having a Long discussion. It was a hard talk for me, but i am glad I did it.
posted by Monday at 3:22 PM on March 23, 2013

I was once the new person and I was warned, though it was a bit different because it was not just a co-worker, but a boss. The person who warned me didn't make a big deal of it, and she didn't attempt to change my feelings towards the boss or stop me from making up my own mind. She was just honest, and slightly vague (i.e. she didn't name any specific instances of this boss being evil.) I did go on as I would have normally, but I think I was slightly more wary of the boss than I would have been otherwise. And when the boss revealed her evil I was far less gobsmacked than I would have been without that little tip-off. So I am glad that person said what she did.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:56 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

How about anonymously giving them a book on toxic co-workers.
posted by Sophont at 11:07 PM on March 23, 2013

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