Gaslighting and sabotage at work. What can I do?
October 11, 2015 8:46 AM   Subscribe

A co-worker has taken against me for unknown reasons. She has also influenced another co-worker to turn against me. Co-worker 1 is very aggressively gaslighting and sabotaging me and my work, making a case against me. She already got 1 earlier co-worker fired. I believe I'm next. But I CAN'T lose my job--though the stress is actually making me sick--because my ex-, who provides a lot of the financial support to me and kid, has been unemployed for many months and we're living on the absolute edge of poverty.

I took this job at the end of January. It's a small international financial services company with only 14 employees here in our headquarters. It was a mistake to take the job from the beginning, but because of my very spotty work history and low self-confidence I took the offer. It's been a very bad match from the beginning, and I would have quit--even without another job--but my ex-husband lost his job just a couple months later and we're barely eking out enough to live with only the bare necessities.

I befriended Co-Worker 1 when she started a few weeks after I did. We ate lunch together most days, supported each other through the reign of terror of our horrible boss, who was fired several months later. I was cautious about C-Worker 1 (let's call her C1), especially after she jilted me for social plans on 2 occasions--plans that she had suggested and arranged. But it was nice to have a work friend.

There was another co-worker, a temp with longer tenure than C1 and me, who C1 HATED. C1, whose position is superior to mine and temps, campaigned to get temp fired. Not that big a deal, since she was a temp and not a permanent employee. But ruthless.

A few months ago, suddenly C1 began acting coldly to me. I don't know why. Would not greet me, turned her back on me in meetings, spoke in a cold and condescending tone when we needed to talk about work. Meanwhile, Co-Worker 2 (C2) had been brought on. She had worked as a contractor in my current position for the company for a year and had trained me, then left. She was called to return to help with the earlier firing of our horrible boss. She's a contractor, but it's an open-ended, indefinite contract. At first, C1 would make mildly catty remarks to me about C2 and even advised me to protect myself against C2 possibly telling me what to do in her former job, my current one. Now it has all turned around. C2 has begun acting coldly to me. C1 and C2 lunch and shop together every day. If they are eating in the small office kitchen and I walk in, C1 will get up and leave even with an unfinished lunch. Neither greets me in the morning or after a weekend. Lots of giggling together then snubbing me. Real mean girl crap. (By the way, we are all mature people--I am 55, they are 40 and 36.)

C1, from the beginning of this period, refused to help me in any way, explaining concepts, helping me figure out how to do something. Several times now, she has emailed me instructions to do a task. English is not her first language, and sometimes it's not clear what she wants. I will respond by email, asking her to confirm what I think she's asking me. She refuses to answer my question, but reiterates "read my email." This past week this happened, and we went back and forth 3 times. I walked over to her desk to explain--again--that I didn't understand her original wording and said to her that it would have been a lot easier and quicker for her to just answer my original question. She said, "You didn't read my email. If you did, you would understand." I explained--again--that I had read it several times carefully and that that was the problem, I didn't understand the wording of her original email. Could she please confirm what I thought she was telling me to do? She refused. I was upset and I raised my voice. Not yelling, but louder, and I was frustrated and emotional. I asked her to please come talk to me about this in private, and she refused. This has already happened many times in the past, with the same refusal on her part to explain or answer a direct question, and her accusation that I don't read her emails.

I emailed our boss, who was in a meeting, that I needed to talk to him about a communication problem with C1. Apparently C1 also emailed him requested a meeting. The next morning, another co-worker, a contractor whose position is superior to mine and C1's and C2's, stopped by my desk and said he'd heard the whole thing and that C1 was completely in the wrong, which was nice of him. A few minutes later Boss called us into a meeting to discuss this, C1, contractor guy, and me. Boss is a nice enough guy, but very obviously is extremely conflict-averse and strenuously avoids the people-management part of his job. He had been the boss of the earlier horrible fired boss and it fell to him to manage our department after she left, which I believe he's very unhappy about. He's very remote and hardly ever talks to me. Twice in the last 2 or 3 months I have requested a meeting with him, asking for some feedback to make sure I'm meeting expectations, and he has put me off, saying he was busy but we'd talk another time. C1 and he work together a lot. I knew the meeting would not go well. And it didn't. After listening to us, Boss addressed only the issue of my getting loud and emotional (I know this was not cool on my part, and I take responsibility for it), and had nothing to say about C1's stonewalling. Like an asshole, I cried in the meeting from helplessness and frustration and made myself look even worse.

This week C1 asked me for some documents. They weren't in the usual place I store them, and I told her I couldn't find them immediately, but I'd get them to her. She suggested I ask our boss if he had them. He wouldn't, and I didn't want to ask as that would be admitting to him that I had lost something. This is an unusual situation, as I'm very organized and have a well-established system of how I handle all this paperwork. I was feeling a panicky and confused about how I could have misplaced the paperwork. Then a few other pieces of paperwork were not where I had put them. I caught myself wondering if C1 had taken them just to make me look bad, but I immedately chided myself for having such a ridiculous and mean thought. Well, 2 days later I went to her desk to ask something, and I saw a small pile of my paperwork in a desk tray, partially covered. I asked her about them, and they were all the things missing from my desk. Granted, some of them were things she would need to be involved with, but I didn't remember giving them to her. And a couple of them were things that had nothing to do with her. She harshly told me I had given them all to her, and she didn't even know why! It was my fault for giving them to her. A couple of them were thing I had given to her for her approval, with my initials and the date I gave them to her, over a week earlier. She angrily questioned me why they were on her desk so long (!), and then accused me of fudging the date to much earlier!

Meanwhile C2, who used to be very kind and friendly to me, chatting about our kids and authors we liked, has stopped speaking to me unless necessary. She outright refused to tell me where to find something she used to work with but which I had never used. She gave me instructions on something and then told me she never told me to do it the way she had. She speaks to me in a curt, impatient, and condescending tone.

I firmly believe C1 is campaigning to get me fired. I know that my company doesn't have any policies preventing them from firing employees without cause. I have one of the lowest positions there, and I'm afraid they may think of me as pretty disposable. There is no HR department, just a once-a-week contractor who deals only with benefits and paperwork. The culture there is very boys-club, conservative, rah rah football, and I am a liberal, book-reading, sports-ignoring woman. I am very friendly and helpful and never discuss politics or anything where I might differ culturally or not fit in. I have worked hard to build a reputation of being very supportive and flexible in any way I can. Frankly, I have taken on a whipped-dog persona which I believe C1 feeds off.

I cry every day in the office bathroom, throw up about once a week in the office bathroom, and have developed an awful rash that won't go away as awful insomnia ever since I began this job. But our family is so dangerously broke, that there's no way I can quit. I also have full benefits which I would lose if I left. I don't know what to do. I'm hoping that you can point out options that I am just not seeing.
posted by primate moon to Work & Money (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, you do not deserve this.

They hired you for the job, because you are competent. You are not bad goods.

While you have a job, assess what you have learned about that industry, make a job description, from that create a new resume. Find another job. You have to person up for the job hunt, validate yourself, exhale these nasty folks from your psyche.

What C1 does is illegal, harassing, and dishonest; your boss is powerless in the "girl" game. You could find a manual about proper office rules and decorum and drop it off for a potential meeting. But I would find a manual about infighting, what it looks like and how to deflect it. Oh yeah and if you can, start locking your paperwork in a file cabinet.
posted by Oyéah at 9:17 AM on October 11, 2015

The boss isn't going to help, and the job not worth it. Been there quite a few times over the last 25 years and mean girl ain't going nowhere.
Upgrade your resume, and start looking yesterday!
posted by TenaciousB at 9:24 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

You need to get out of there. I promise, there is another job out there for you.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:28 AM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is a job where you just have to accept that C1 and C2 are hostile. It's not friends that are treating you poorly. They're enemies. Treat them as such. Do your job. Don't try to reconcile. Keep your nose clean, and collect unemployment if you're let go.
posted by mercredi at 10:01 AM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


What's happened here is that, owing to your own personal drama, you've accidentally created a really dysfunctional work situation for yourself. Yes, you can - and should! - blame C1 for being an instigator, but the buck HAS TO STOP WITH YOU because you are the one who is miserable, and nobody else is going to come and save you from misery. Not here, not anywhere. This is classic triangulation - you, C1 and C2, and sometimes Boss - and it's the most common toxic workplace dynamic people with fuzzy boundaries find themselves contending with. You fell into a trap here and you're the only one who's going to get yourself out of it.

To that end, I want you to think about three things:

- How to support yourself and your kid without help from your ex-husband; and

- How to create for yourself the best work environment possible; and

- Finding another job.

Here's some practical advice to that end:

- Ask to change your work environment if that's possible. Move your desk to a more private area. Ask if you can use headphones to block out ambient noise. The less you physically interact with hostile people the better for you. Ask for an additional partition. Get a big ass plant and put it between your chair and the rest of the office. I'm serious - physical change that creates more of a domain for yourself works wonders psychologically.

- Make rules for yourself surrounding work.

#1: Work does not begin until you are at work. Set your alarm for an hour before your kid wakes. It may mean that you're up at 530. So be it. You need one hour of PRIMATEMOON time. For one hour, you drink tea, put your feet up, have a hot bath, eat a good breakfast, read the paper, write, stretch, do yoga, whatever. Every. Day. Sleep is not more important than this kind of ritualized self-care.

#2: You are professional and polite to your co-workers BUT NEVER PERSONAL. You do not engage in personal conversations, you do not engage in gossip, you do eat lunch with your co-workers, you only discuss work things at work, and then, only briefly. These people are not your friends. These are people you accomplish tasks with, nothing more, nothing less.

#3: The work is the point of your work life. Why? Because you are working to pass the time and collect the check until you find the job that you are going to take to replace this soul-sucking dungeon. The moment you start feeling like a victim to your work, your co-workers, your boss? Pick up a task and start on it. Doesn't matter what it is. Feeling trapped? Focus on a task. Feeling stressed about C1's awfulness? Clean out your inbox, think of at least one more type of place you'd like to apply, organize your physical files, etc. Can't work because you're going nuts? Get up and take a brisk walk. Get a stress ball and some lozenges and keep them on hand for when you need a physical outlet.

#4: Work stops the moment you leave work. No more work when you hit the pavement. Go pick up your kid. Plan a dinner project for the first hour you're home, even if it's just Kid cuts up the banana and you spread the peanut butter and then you cut your peanut butter and banana sandwiches into heart shapes. Whatever. Make popcorn balls or melon balls or rice krispie treats. Skewer your elbow macaroni and cheese onto skewers and eat it that way. Whatever it takes to decompress and destress while enjoying time with your kid. Coloring books, modeling clay, play a board game. I know, I know, everybody's exhausted and there's homework. But you need to invest in the time that fulfills you and your Kid, and give yourself psychological and spiritual distance from work.

Now, as for your co-workers:

Let's say your co-worker actually is trying to get you fired. Well, she needs your cooperation for that, right? And we've already established that 1.) your top priority is taking care of yourself and your kid and 2.) you're not long for this place anyway. So....stop focusing on her. Treat her with so much politeness and efficiency, it'll creep her out. Find a paper of yours in her inbox? "Oh, Darlene! There's the paper I've been looking for! Thank goodness, you had it right there. Great, can you [do whatever it is that she didn't do] while I'm here, and then we can both get this off our plates? " Take the upper hand politely and make it all about work when you have to interact with her. Otherwise - avoid. And stay out of the bosses office. He doesn't care and he doesn't want to referee you two. I can also guarantee if you keep letting her get to you like this they will get rid of you, or both of you. (You're right when you say in so many words you've already got some strikes against you, at least in your boss' eyes.) Stop engaging with her in any way other than polite efficiency, and keep even that to the barest of bare minimums.

I'm really sorry you're in this toxic work situation. Really sorry, I've been there, I know what you're talking about. I'm also a mom and I can only imagine what kind of stress you're under, having to go through a divorce, take care of your kid, and try to make ends meet. You're acting out your life drama in your work and it's killing you. The good news is, you're going to stop doing that, focus on caring well for yourself and your kid, and quit giving all your power over to this game-player. You're also going to find a new job.

Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:53 AM on October 11, 2015 [36 favorites]

On top of all this, it would be nice if you didn't have to also deal with low self esteem. Remember that from a company perspective, C1 is a nightmare hire - the toxic employee that slips through the hiring process and proceeds to drag down the effectiveness of people around them, doing substantial long-term harm to the company instead of helping it and earning that paycheck.
You are the kind of hire a competent company wants, C1 is the kind of the hire that a competent company would authorize a quarter million dollars to get rid of if that's all it took (not exaggerating - businesses wish a quarter million dollars was all it cost to be rid of a toxic employee), but of course if it were that easy then C1 would never have been hired in the first place.

I don't face this kind of infighting, so might not be qualified for actual advice. The obvious stuff - do your work, be seen to do your work, discreetly guard your back, don't be seen to be playing C1's game vs C1, but take precautions. etc. Oyéah suggests locking your work which seems prudent if it can be done without drawing the wrong sort of attention (eg if you're out sick and someone might legitimately need to access your papers, have a system in place to handle that - boss or someone else also has a key).
If C1 targets more than one person at a time, then that can help you, as it can help establish C1 undermining others instead of you against her, and you and those others can watch each other's back and build evidence of a pattern of behavior).

If you think C1 may engage in outright direct sabotage of your work, then consider leaving out some tempting low hanging fruit so that you control the when/where/how of her transgression so that she can be caught red-handed (Documents go missing and there are witnesses? Webcam used as security cam? I have no idea). But do not play games like that at the expense of getting your work done.

Keep looking for work. Keep your spirits up. Keep doing your job. Be kind to yourself.
posted by anonymisc at 11:02 AM on October 11, 2015

Stealing the documents is really sketchy. ask for a locking file cabinet and use it.

Use email. If you aren't certain what her email means, send an email saying I have questions about your email: question 1 blah blah. I understand you to mean blah blah. She doesn't reply, or doesn't clarify. As I stated previously, this is my understanding. Since I have not received clarification, I will act accordingly as follows: blah blah.

Tell Boss: I understand that personalities come into play at work, and I think this will die on its own. Meanwhile, may I ask you to step in only when there is a work issue to be resolved. You can cc: Boss on emails where co-workers don't cooperate with you, but be sparing.

Start creating great documentation for how stuff gets done. That will make you a more valuable employee, and it will help reduce anyone's ability to screw with you.

The open hostility? Keep a diary. set up an email account outside work, send email to it to document the behaviors. assholery isn't always illegal, but it may be helpful to keep a record.

Be professional be cordial, share no personal information. treat all coworkers with courtesy. If nothing else, it reduces their power over you. Maintain the best possible relationship with your Boss.

Look for a new job.
posted by theora55 at 11:28 AM on October 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

I'll second documentation, including personal documentation, that only you have access to. (Meaning, not on a company email account that they could shut you out of.) The main reason I would do this is if you do get fired, you can file for unemployment, and if they try to say you were fired for cause, then you want to have that documentation to show that they're full of shit. (This assuming you're US based, of course.)

What kind of vacation time do you have saved up? If you have any paid leave available to use, I would take it, and I would use that time to apply to pretty much any reasonable job you can find. Really, right now you're goals should be to try to survive this toxic atmosphere and to get out as soon as you can.

This is one of those easier said than done things, but I think you should really cultivate the art of not caring. After all, you'll be sending out a whole bunch of applications, and worst case scenario is you get laid off, and at least you can still get unemployment. (I understand that unemployment doesn't solve the benefits issue, and it may well be significantly less than you currently get paid, but it's better than quitting and getting no money coming in.)

I know it's not going to be easy to get the motivation to apply for jobs when this job is sucking the life out of you, and that's one of the reasons why I suggest trying to take some (paid) time off if you can. Maybe a family member or friend can even help you put together applications? I really think you should apply to any job that pays enough and you think you could stand to do. Pretty much anything would be better than this.

Also, I know this is such a stereotypical askme answer, but I think you should consider therapy, if you're benefits will cover it. Even a few sessions with a CBT therapist might be able to help you work on ways to cope with stress and try to keep your head on straight. Dealing with this kind of antagonism, especially with the gaslighting, can really mess with your head. Also, maybe for the short term, you could look into some sort of sleeping pills. I'm very wary of those in general, but not sleeping is only going to make all of this harder to deal with.

I'm really sorry you're having to deal with this toxic situation, and I hope you're able to get out very soon.
posted by litera scripta manet at 12:56 PM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

TrytheTilapia's script for dealing with toxic work is the best I have ever read. It is an easier said than done script, but most things are. It is a very good plan, a very possible plan, and just the plan you need. It lets you take care of yourself, take care of your job, and helps you separate the job from your value as a person. I guarantee you that your value as a person is not reflected by your toxic co-worker and your dysfunctional work environment.

I have been in a workplace so toxic I lost 40 pounds and cried on the bus home every day. TrytheTilapia's plan is very similar to how I coped. Then I got a new job and took about a year to recover. So that' all I would add to TtT's plan: set aside a couple hours every week or every other week (you've got a lot on your plate) not only to apply for jobs, but to talk to your network about your desire for a new job. Spin those conversations as positively as possible, focus on your skills and what you'd like to be doing at work, ask if they know anyone hiring for those skills. Keep the "my workplace is poison and I'm dying of it" out of it as much as possible, not only because you're leaving work at work but also because you want to sound like a good candidate for the friend of a friend whose office is hiring.

You can do this. Theora55's sentence: Be professional be cordial, share no personal information. treat all coworkers with courtesy. If nothing else, it reduces their power over you. Maintain the best possible relationship with your Boss. is your watchword.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:24 PM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Make your 17 year old aspie son get a job. If he cannot due to disability maybe he needs to move out or live with his dad and you can get a house share situation. Or look into benefits for his disability if he qualifies. Removing the terror forcing you to stay there at the toxic job may help you cope with the job or getting a new one. I know he might be afraid but right now you're bearing all the fear for two. You can't help him if you're driven to madness from stress.
posted by Mistress at 6:58 AM on October 12, 2015

« Older Examples of surprising aspects of everyday life...   |   Must choose between being good and being happy? T... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.