Frenemies R Us, Workplace Edition
June 27, 2014 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently working with, for the first time in my life, someone who I can truly classify as a frenemy. 50% of the time, all smiles and sweetness; 50% of the time, undermining, secretive, backstabby, and manipulative. This is someone I actually *have* to work with-- we're on a number of teams together. Lately she's been telling others that a project I created, developed, and sold to a client was actually "a fluke" and that my contributions were minimal. How to deal with this in the most productive way?

We'll call this person Carly. Carly and I work in different departments at a small company. We're often on small (4-6 person) teams together, with the two of us in leadership roles. Early in our work together, she invited me out for drinks and acted all buddy-buddy and gossippy with me. She singled me out to share insider information with. She shared details from her personal life. I figured were were friends. But then I noticed that she'd occasionally undercut or undermine me ("Oh, you can handle THAT part of the project-- I'm not concerned with those little day-to-day things" or, when I brought in another person to help us with a project, "Oh, Anon has a RINGER, does she?"). But I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed she didn't mean it. And friends don't undermine each other, right?

Over time, though, I noticed these slights and cutting remarks seemed to not go away, and in fact ratcheted up as I took on more leadership roles. When I received a big promotion, everyone in the company congratulated me, except my "friend," Carly. At one point there were 4 employees in a car together, and the two others said, 'Awesome work, Anon! That's so awesome about your promotion." Carly said nothing.

Recently, Carly has been holding meetings without telling me about them-- meetings that I should at least be aware of, if not invited to. One large project was almost 100% my creation: I originated, developed, and sold the program to our client. Carly talks to everyone about this project, and refers to how it was just a "fluke" that "we" sold it, and "Anon made a few bullet points about it."

Clearly she feels some sort of competition with me (even though we're in different departments). I don't trust her at all, but I also have to work with her. I've certainly distanced myself and don't share anything personal with her, but I also feel I need to stand up to her and demonstrate that this behavior is not going to fly. I've been hoping to leave my boss out of it, as I'd rather be someone who can solve my own problems if possible.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Ask her what she said, and why she would say that.
posted by discopolo at 8:24 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience this kind of transparent, juvenile, two-faced middle-school type of mean-girl shenannigans totally withers when confronted head-on in an adult fashion.

If you heard credible reports that she is saying false and harmful things about you, you need to check her on that calmly but firmly and very specifically. She is then compelled to either deny she said it, effectively accusing your other co-workers of lying, or own the remarks in some fashion (with apology or clumsy defense). Either way she will learn the hard way that being shitty will lead to uncomfortable conversations with you. Be the grownup at all times - refrain from gossip or similar shitty backstabbing behaviors. You will keep the moral high ground and (assuming your work culture and management are worth a damn) will come out the winner in the long term.

In any group of people mature enough to collectively be called professionals, most of the group will be smart enough to notice this kind of stupid treachery and the perpetrator loses out as a result. If your colleagues do not fit this description, you may need to consider finding a better class of people to work with.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 8:36 AM on June 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

Do the cutting remarks happen in professional settings? Or are you hearing about them second hand?

This matters. If in a professional setting with other colleagues, I would call her on it. Eg for the Ringer comment - "It seems to have an issue with bringing the appropriate resources onto this project. Who would you prefer this aspect of the project be resourced to? Do you feel that the time frame allows for you to accomplish this task?"

Nothing sarcastic or snarky - but assuming she said the subtext aloud, as opposed to whatever passive aggressive nonsense she actually said. This puts her on the spot for her comment and behavior as unproductive (and accountable as it is clear she is acting unprofessional)

If you are hearing this from 3rd party sources - I would question why the 3rd parties feel the need to tell me and spread the gossip.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 8:36 AM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I could have written a very similar post (but I am new here and have to wait a week). I am so glad you posted this! Sorry you are going through it though. It sounds to me like your frenemy is threatened by you. The fact that you bonded over gossip is a red flag, indicating that she thrives on the failure or misery of others. It sounds like you were on an equal playing field for a while, then you edged her out due to a promotion. Now she is trying to level things out by cutting you down. Classic.

This past year I was elected to a leadership position in my job, and my colleague, who I also considered to be one of my best friends for the past four years, could not handle it. She turned on me completely. Like Carly, she NEVER congratulated me for my success. Instead she talked about me behind my back, indicating that I didn't deserve the position, and going as far as to tell someone she hoped it blew up in my face. All the while she smiled, played nice, and let me confide in her. When I found out about the backstabbing, I was heartbroken and furious. I ended the friendship immediately due to the nature of her comments (they were beyond petty; they were cruel and bordering on character assassination). It took me many weeks to figure out that she, like your friend Carly, was feeling inferior.

Here is what I suggest as a solution: keep it completely professional with Carly. Do not confide in her. Do not share your opinion with her. Do not gossip with her. Be totally objective. Share nothing of your personal life. Sever outside of work ties if you can. Be cordial but removed. She is looking for ways to tear you down, so offer her nothing.

Also, check out this blog post. I found myself nodding and taking notes as I read it in the wake of my issue with my gal pal.

Good luck with this. Women in leadership roles have to often deal with this kind of crap, and it usually comes from people who consider themselves more deserving or entitled than you. It sounds like you did not invest too much on the friendship side of things, so hopefully you are more annoyed than hurt. Carly will likely wear herself out, and if not, let her go. People will see her for who she is, and she will likely behave the same way when anyone else threatens her meager sense of self.
posted by hippychick at 8:42 AM on June 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

If she has anything more than the most vestigial office politics skills, you'll eventually be glad of the timestamped journal you're going to start keeping tomorrow in order to create a documentation trail for her increasingly informal methods of communicating her increasingly widely harvested curation of workplace requirements to you.
posted by flabdablet at 8:50 AM on June 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

Let me run this back:
- You had an awesome product which sold to a grateful client.
- You received a promotion.
- Your peers congratulated you about your work and your promotion.

Carly is being a brat and everyone can see it. Getting in the dirt with her gives her credibility and diminishes yours. Instead, you go with a sort of pitying thing. If someone mentions it you say, "Yes, I'm aware of the issue. I know she's struggling with my promotion. I don't want to make things worse for her. As long as it doesn't leak to a client or impede my ability to do my work, I'm going to let it pass without comment." If she doesn't invite you to a meeting, then let her have the repercussions - either others will invite you or they'll say why are we meeting without Anon?

That's the classy, executive way to handle it. You don't need to crush her. She'll do that on her own.

The view is good from the high road and there's never any traffic.
posted by 26.2 at 9:21 AM on June 27, 2014 [22 favorites]

I would start by documenting everything, and contacting other members of the team to determine when meetings are, etc, and having them forward the invites to you.

As for Carly, I'd be having a meeting together pronto.

"I want to be sure that we're both on the same page here. I don't appreciate the way that you undermine and exclude me from projects that I'm heading, or are an integral part of. I'm even hearing from colleagues that you're saying that the X project was a fluke. I'm not interested in why you're doing these things, or saying these things, I couldn't care less. It stops now."

If she denies it, say, "At least you have enough shame to realize that someone who does these things is wrong, I'll pretend it never happened as long as it absolutely stops instantly."

Document the meeting, and document actions subsequently. It should stop. If it doesn't it's time to go to her manager, with your journal to discuss.

Never dick around with your professional reputation. Yes, you want to take the high road, but you have to put a halt to this kind of shit or else it can gain traction.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:26 AM on June 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

Early in our work together, she invited me out for drinks and acted all buddy-buddy and gossippy with me. She singled me out to share insider information with.

Gossip is as gossip does. Next time recognize it as unprofessional. Same with the drinks and buddy-buddy insider information. Behaving professionally is not a guarantee that you will be treated professionally, but being ok with unprofessional behavior when it affects other people is nearly a guarantee that it will eventually affect you too.
posted by headnsouth at 9:34 AM on June 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Carly is being a brat and everyone can see it.

Seconding this. A lot of Carly's behavior responds to the "give 'em enough rope" technique beautifully; 26.2 has a good script for how to acknowledge when other people come to you all "did you hear what Carly was saying about you?"

About the only thing I would call her on is the not-informing-you-of-meetings thing. I would take her aside and focus just on that; state that you're a bit concerned that you heard that there were some meetings she was coordinating but you hadn't been informed of them. Could she have a word with her secretary to remind her that you are to at least be made aware these meetings are happening going forward? Because, surely that was the problem, and it couldn't have been that you were just left out of the loop on purpose, right? Thanks.

Protect your ability to do your own job, and the way you do that is to fix the meeting thing. As for the gossipy shit, that'll catch her in the ass all on its own.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, amen to what @headnsouth said. Next time, you'll know not to engage in "mean girl" gossip with work people, ever. As the saying goes: "If they'll gossip to you, they'll gossip about you."

Also -- and this is a crucial lesson for younger professional women -- work is not the place to make friends. Friendly work acquaintances, sure. But at work, when competition and power struggles are always the unspoken subtext, you cannot risk being vulnerable with the Carlys of the world (i.e. others at your level who want what you have.) Ex-friends make horrible colleagues. Recommended reading: Tripping the Prom Queen by Susan Shapiro Barash.

Carly has a passive aggressive behavior pattern. I agree with everyone here who suggests you document Carly's pattern, keeping accurate records of who/what/where was said, and the dates and times of meetings Carly left you out of, including others' reports.

You should thank your coworkers for telling you Carly has been actively undermining you. How else would you know about the harm she's doing you if nobody cared enough to tell you? This is your career and personal livelihood we're talking about. It is absolutely your business to know. Good for them for pushing past the social awkwardness around "tattling" and for reporting it directly to you. This signals that they see you as someone with more social power than Carly, which is a good thing. You can also directly ask for their support in keeping you in the information loop: "Next time Carly sends out an invite to you to a meeting about X, Y, and Z, would you please forward the email on to me? Thank you."

Refuse to be caught up in Carly's game. Use rational self-talk: "I won't get upset over yet another instance of sabotage or noncooperation. Either I will let it go, or I will be assertive. But I won't just fume and do nothing about it."

Assert yourself with Carly and put her on notice that, starting immediately, you are to be included in ALL meetings about X, Y, and Z projects, and she needs to provide you with copies of any meeting notes from the meetings from which she purposely excluded you. Because this is the workplace, and Carly has been so passive aggressive, I suggest you try to have a mediator present when you call this meeting with Carly. This might be a mutual superior, a senior person outside your section but within the organization, or an external professional mediator. But also have realistic expectations: people with a passive aggressive behavior pattern at work usually do not permanently change - after being called on it, they might act appropriately for awhile, but then they generally find other ways to act out. If after this conversation with Carly, you keep getting reports about her undermining you, then do not hesitate to make a formal complaint or ask for a change of procedures or responsibilities.
posted by hush at 10:34 AM on June 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

In addition to all the advice above about how to handle Carly personally, could you also enlist a couple of people on your team to make sure you're included in meetings and important information, so you're not dependent on her? You don't have to mention her name, although I'm sure your coworkers will connect the dots; you can just say that you want to make sure you're in the loop, so you're asking your coworker to make sure you're on relevant emails and meeting invites, and forward you anything you're missing out on.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:38 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

She operated by the "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" rule of cutthroat workplace.

She is not your friend; there is no 'fren' in 'frenemy' - she's straight up Team Not You.

So in addition to the advice above don't give her any good information to go with; operate on a need-to-know basis and keep your boundaries clear. She's social and fun to be with I'm sure but this woman is not a friend.

In the future - my M.O. is to generally avoid overshare-y ladies / people; some are just insecure and spewing everywhere, a subset are harmless chatty cathy's but some are bait-and-switchers that are looking to lure you into a false sense of security for the inside advantage. Real people take time to know.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:45 AM on June 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Lots of great advice here, but I would avoid involving your other coworkers in the drama. If it's Carly's job to coordinate the meeting, it's her job to invite you. It's not your innocent coworker's job to monitor the invite list and forward you emails. Tell Carly (in writing) that you're concerned about the oversight that led to you not being included in the meeting, and that you're sure it won't happen again. If it happens again, alert your (or Carly's) supervisor.
posted by freshwater at 1:03 PM on June 27, 2014

I had a Carly at my work. She wasn't in my department, but was in a cubicle down the hall from my office. When I first met her, she was really friendly and even had my family over to her house for 4th of July. We had fun.

Then one day my boss pulled me into her office. "Someone in the office has been complaining about your schedule. They note when you arrive and when you leave. I have no problem with your schedule, but wanted to warn you to not trust everyone."

"Carly?" I asked. She nodded.

From that day forward I kept my enemy close. I never confronted her about anything, but remained friendly and cheerful when she was around. When she made little comments like "You're in late today. Did you have a long night?" I would change the subject and pretend I didn't notice. She was eventually fired for having such a crappy attitude, so I didn't ever lose face and she got what was coming to her.
posted by tacodave at 2:45 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would just rise above! So be polite and smile and be civil, but pretend you don't hear the catty comments (by not reacting you can often sort of pavlovian programme her into leaving you alone). Also to make things easier for yourself I would try and get her on your side 'keep your frenemies closer' by being on HER side where it doesn't conflict with your own interests and building trust by following through and in all the little things.

If she does something that is actually unacceptable then be assertive and tell her that when she does that thing it is unacceptable because (reason) and that if she continues (consequence) will happen. Assertive but not personal.

Arm's length coexistence is definitely possible! Some people are a bit iffy but awesome workers will work around them so just look at it as a training course in jealous/competitive coworkers Good luck!
posted by dinosaurprincess at 11:27 PM on June 27, 2014

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