How to deal with a backstabbing employee

Employee smiles to your face, then trashes you behind your back

No matter how good morale is, there are always some employees with negative attitudes.

The worst may be those who offer sweet smiles to your face – and then badmouth you or the company to other employees.

It can tarnish a manager’s image, undermine his or her authority and crush morale.

That’s the situation manager Katie Adams faced when she heard a worker badmouthed her to others.

She did okay, but…

“So how did Mandy do on that special assignment she did for you?” asked fellow manager Jason White.

“The final product was pretty good…” said Katie.

“Uh-oh, sounds like there’s a big ‘but’ coming,” said Jason.

Being trashed on the grapevine

“Yeah, let’s just say she needed more direction than anyone else who has done this kind of work for me,” said Katie. “Why are you so curious?”

“Well, I’ve heard through the grapevine that she’s really been trashing you to other employees,” said Jason.

“She’s what!?!” said Katie. “I bent over backwards for her.”

“She told everyone you threw her to the wolves,” said Jason. “You dropped the product in her lap and the company provided no guidance. Of course, she put it in cruder terms.”

Snake in the grass?

“Are we talking about the same Mandy Johnson?” asked Katie.

“The Mandy I worked with was polite, demure and a bit naive.”

“One and the same,” said Jason.

“I don’t know what to say. I’ve had six people do this project in the past year. I’ve given them all the same guidelines an support. And they all did it well,” said Katie.

“I gave Mandy three times the coaching and had to answer an endless stream of e-mail from her,” she said. “And she came to me personally to thank me for helping her so much.”

“What a two-faced, back stabbing snake in the grass!” said Katie.

The big question

Katie was angry. She didn’t like someone unfairly badmouthing her.

Should she call Mandy in and confront her about the comments? Or should she just let it go and not stir things further?

If you were in Katie’s situation, what would you do? One of the ideas below offered by our readers might provide you with some guidance.

Uncover the truth and get back to business

What Mandy said would’ve confused me quite a bit. So I’d confront her very calmly to find out why she said I had thrown her to the wolves and that she didn’t get any help from the company. I’d want to know what the real issue was behind he comments. It’s possible she didn’t understand the assignment. Maybe she was trying to get back at me for something else. Or, maybe she really did have a justifiable reason for saying what she said. Whatever the answer, I’d try to get to the bottom of it and take steps to move on from there.

Don Hines, Safety Director, Nor-son, Inc., Baxter, MN

Take steps to be the peacemaker

I’d retrace my steps to make sure I’d given Mandy everything she needed to complete her assignment. Then, I’d meet with her and ask how the project had gone. I’d tell her what I heard from my fellow manager. If she admitted she’d said it, I’d ask her why she said it. The critical thing is to understand what motivated her to say what she said, especially if you thought she was the right person for the job and thought you had a good working relationship. Obviously something isn’t right, so I’d want to take steps to smooth things out if that was possible and get things back on track.

Rick Jouett, Director of Employment, Career Development Washington University, St Louis MO

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Comments

  1. Carla Mindingall says

    As an Employee Relations professional, my initial instinct in reading this was to wonder “who” was actually doing the backstabbing (Jason or Mandy). Unfortunately, managers can unwittingly (and sometimes) purposefully cause disruptions by making seemingly innocent comments that can lead to detrimental consequences. Therefore, before automatically jumping to conclusions that “Mandy” was in the wrong, as the leader, I would simply circle back with Mandy as well as others who worked on the project to understand their experience and spot check to see what went well, and what could have been done differently. There are simply too many variances in this situation to be taken verbatim.
    Carla Mindingall, Career and Executive Coach, Wholesome Introspect, LLC, Louisville, KY

    • Roger says

      Carla,

      I agree entirely. As a manager I need to determine who the backstabber is, Jason or Mandy. One way to do this for me as a manager would be to work with HR to determine if either Jason or Mandy has a pattern of behavior in their record. I would then base my follow-up with the team based on whatever information I learned.

  2. AJM says

    This hits home with me. A star employee that I fast-tracked and nurtured in an environment of 700 direct reports was “hired as an informant” by my boss at HQ to be her “ears on the ground” in the call center I managed. The picture that was fed back was part true, part distorted. That was then used to build a case against me about challenging our people too much. After being on a fast-track myself and a continual string of successes, it was a snake in the grass that caused the air to go out of my sails. Not even anything substantive, but stylistic disagreement with my boss (all our performance and employee satisfaction numbers were at record highs). I was so disgusted that I took a severance and started my own business. That was 10 years ago and I’ve never been happier – I purposely built my business such that is has no snakes and no grass at all.

    • Chris says

      AJM,
      That is awesome to hear. Talk about learning from your experience. I too as a manager have dealt with backstabbing employees. Those individuals seem to be typically the ones who always complain, work harder at getting out of doing the original work, and seem to have a low self esteem. I praise you for the new business you designed and structured so well. Your boss should’ve been more connected with the people they manage. What type of company did you start? I at least want to send people that way because a company that has it’s internal structure together will be a good experience for the client too. Best of luck/success.

  3. AJM says

    ^ What would I do differently in hindsight? I would say to my boss that her surveillance was unfair. (I only discovered it after it was too late). That we should have a free-flowing meeting with all 3 of us in a room so that I can speak to accusations, and so the employee has to be more balanced in what they say.

    I’m for 360 degree feedback; I think it’s a fantastic tool. If you can speak to it.

    I also think I might not have been a fit for that culture. I think my style was fine for my first company but not my second. So I do take blame for not wanting to change my style.

    • devon says

      Firstly , i would not repeat statements made, because many people in the organizations purposely encourage unfavourable statements towards another unsuspecting employee, in this case it was Katie whose performance was in questioned as a Manager, Many times the motive is to break down the confidence of a good performer through an innocent individual in this case it was the innocent employee Mandy.
      My approach would be, to inquire, if Katie was happy with the completion of the project .I’ll also remind her, any concerns can be addressed and we can discuss it. I believe I would have achieved two things without casting judgement.
      1. Preserve my confidence, and rise above negative statements especially since I would have been satisfied all was done to make the job easier.
      2. I would have preserved the relationship amongst all by not believing blindly, however, if mandy felt the need to let me know she was in fact dissatisfied, I would then guide her in her approach for future assignments if dissatisfied.

  4. Harold Sims says

    Don’t get caught up in the “he said, she said” game. This is dangerous, because it triggers internal (and possibly external) discord amongst all involved. Keep an eye on the situation and do what you are paid to do in a hierarchical management structure…manage those that are less capable than you and fall under your supervision. Maintain your position above the foolishness, keep good records, and go with your righteous spirit. All else will be revealed and work itself out. If she did it to you, it won’t be long before she does it to others and she is revealed for what/who she really is.

    Also, keep an eye on Jason. Anyone that runs around spreading information like that is a part of the problem. That’s why he is privy to that info.

  5. John Phillips says

    First your reputation is not tarnished by venomous spewed statements unless you degrade yourself by allowing emotions to rule over you. Secondly You do not need anyone else s approval to be successful no mater how much of a Hyena pack is running loose in the office, unless you wish to allow someone else to be capable of dominating your choices.
    I see it as an assault on basic maturity and excessive envy / jealousy allowing diarrhea of their mouth and constipation of the brain to be in control of the weak willed masses speaking or engaging in this activity.
    To work at a skill or trade shows some sign of and level of a educated person to some degree…….
    To Teach others a skill or trade is the true sign of an intelligent person.

    CJP 6:215

    • s says

      I wish it were that easy. In my case I was removed from my management duties with the executive director saying the exact things my direct report had been overheard saying. Of course, it was demonstrably untrue and the other managers and even my director were all taken aback by the action.

      The only schadenfruede I have is that now the group’s direction is in disarray and failing under the new manager.

    • blank says

      yah I agree with this one. you are a manager get thicker skin and move on. And maybe the manager needs some training on how to keep the peace and keep happy staff.

  6. Marty Stewart says

    Responding to gossip fuels the grapevine and may not be positive/productive. My first question to the carrier of tales would be something along the lines, “Why are you telling me this?” I would like to know their goal in spreading negative comments. If their goal is to stop the gossip and backstabbing, I would call a meeting with all parties and review the support provided and outcomes of each project with all individuals. In this meeting, I would invite suggestions for improvement as we move forward into our next projects.

    360 assessments are valuable; however, not all organizations provide for that type of feedback. If so, I’d definitely use that tool.

  7. Diana says

    I am not sure why everyone is commenting on Jason, I mean yes depending on the relationship I might question him. I however would hope a fellow manager would make me aware of what someone is saying behind my back. I agree Katie needs to confront the “snake in the grass” to be sure there isn’t missing/inaccurate information.

  8. Bill says

    We wish that all of our employees were stars very content with their work and tasks, but one can never account for their baggage. One third of employees love you; one third do not like you; and the remainder are neutral. That leaves a manger to balance personalities with delivering for the company. Being firm, fair, and flexible yet consistent keeps everyone’s eye on the target is where leadership and managing differ. An employee who is that disgruntled should keep their resumes updated and options open. This is a two-way street for mangers and employees and ultimately the direction of the firm. Lead by example.

  9. Ken says

    I have been through this situation. There are many ways to handle this and each one depends on the individual.

    In my case, I am contracted. I am a guest at the institution in which I provide managerial services for my team. Keeping the peace can mean letting it go. Confronting an employee that announces to the whole department that something occurred, without the other person present, makes them look like a fool. In rational people’s eyes, that is. It also lets a person understand what type of performance they can expect from that individual.

    If they are confronted it is not an occurrence to be talked about but reflective reasoning about the record of their emotional outbursts.

  10. Jetta says

    I agree this is a question of maturity. Typically when you see this type of behavior (from Mandy/Jason) the behavior is not confined to the comments made. It will usually follow other behaviors that are consistent with an immature worker. You will have seen a professionalism breakdown in other situations. That being said, your work with others and ‘Mandy’s’ work with others will speak for itself. However, if Mandy has surprised everyone by speaking out and you’ve had this mentioned about you in the past it may be time to check yourself/methods of training. Ultimately, if you feel the need to confront anyone it would be Jason who should have asked Mandy to set up a meeting with you to discuss the breakdown in communication between the two of you. He should also offer to be there to be an UNBIASED mediator.

  11. LL says

    These are all excellent, well thought out and clearly the responses of seasoned professionals; which – if I may – long time listener, first time caller 🙂

    Recently had an usual situation with our new HR Manager, I am Head of Operations, she disliked my opinion or how it was stated perhaps, that one of my managers can’t make new hire decisions on her own yet, as she has yet to hire anyone, and I should be sent resumes of our open position as well, and frankly am surprised to find I’ve been left out of the process after we three met the prior week and nothing we discussed has been implemented, job has not been posted internally, job was not posted with company account to allow for management access (she has personal accounts), and company jobs email was not used for responses so we are dependent upon being sent emails with this information and can do nothing without asking or bothering her… Simply it’s contrary to agreed upon procedures without notice, don’t want to move backward so moving forward- in the least please loop me in as mgr can’t.

    The response:
    You weren’t here most of this week (my boss’s, our CEO, mother had passed and the wake, funeral, etc had been the priority much of the week for Dept Heads) she further went on… I was dealing with the MANAGER(!!!) You must not have much of a relationship if she isn’t talking to you.

    aside:
    Disregarding that we (mgr and I) spoke plenty, i.e., I knew all the stated items were ignored and recruiting began and she had been expected to perform tasks she was not yet able or developed to do

    Instead I refocused on agreement, manager development (which I’m very clear now will not be within purview of this new HR Manager) and began to attempt to close the quickly unraveling conversation. Stated its near end of day, and should have considered before rushing in, tried to apologize and reach agreement on when to complete conversation (end on an agreement!)

    But no such luck. This attempt to leave, resulted in her stating I was now disrespecting her; so now choices were to stay and allow for this to continue or leave knowing I’m doing so with the perception of having done so as an act of disrespect. Of course the same adult logical other option was to simply explain that wasn’t so… But I’d have to be allowed to do so without this becoming a screaming match just to be heard as if I were to speak, it would mean we both were for even if she asked a question she’d only allow a few words before speaking over me. She needed to be heard, so I listened.

    The rest is me listening to such statements as ” I’m gravely concerned over the relationship you have with your manager” and “I seriously question your leadership” and “Your negativity, disguised as the low opinion you have of your managers value to contribute…” It may be important to note – I’m not exaggerating- these may be fragments – but also direct quotes.

    My contributions, when allowed are, were – I’m not going to validate or invalidate your feelings or opinion of my leadership or relationships; my feelings towards my managers isn’t going to be negotiated today; when asked why I’m not answering her or acknowledging an apology (apparently) for not being cc’d on emails- “I won’t be heard with us both speaking” to which she jumped all over; and I just simply stated “I hear you, however I don’t feel heard today” and mostly just trying to exit.

    It finally ended, I said you’ve given me a lot to think about, have a good weekend and I left.

    Since, (2 wks ago- I think) we are cordial, our offices are actually beside one another – I had thought about discussing this with her dept head but didn’t. She repeated her workload, lack of resources, and other shortcomings a number of times as if she were the only one – instead I instructed and made available the resources she needs – as her lashing out may be a poor reaction to stress and being overwhelmed.

    I offered to take this opening off her hands and do it ourselves, of course it was refused; however the resources she gratefully accepted (access to our dept coordinator, admin Asst, and some other tools to automate processes, and better understanding of existing resources – she is very new)

    I do not like how she handled her opinion, nor the opinion itself; however she’s wading at the deep end and though she is likely 15yrs my senior; I am the “Superior” here and my feelings were not- despite the personal nature in which the criticisms were stated.

    Then learned her exit interview strategy was targeting me and when she doesn’t like the answers, writes them herself. An employee leaving at end of week did her exit today and was clearly handed item to sign of words she did not say. Yet a diff employee with diff dept head did not have same experience.

    Not a positive final lasting impression for our employee now is that?

    Yet to learn of any cause/effect reaction to this new info – to whom it reflects poorly – how it is spun, etc.

    If you got this far thanks, believe it or not, this is quite edited…

    So… Thoughts/Advice??

  12. KP says

    The assumption I see in some responses is that Mandy’s statement was without merit. I think that is a poor assumption. Even if you think you did your best, your job as a manager is to communicate well and give your team the tools they need to make your team a success. Apparently Mandy’s review is Katie failed. If employees feel deprived of resources, their concerns ignored, and a lack of clarity, you encourage them to complain. The fact Katie had no idea Mandy was upset means employees likely do not feel free to talk to Katie openly or Katie was oblivious. A manager should review their actions and see what they need to do to improve. I wonder about Katie talking behind Mandy’s back to another manager stating “she needed more direction than anyone else.” That should not have been said either. You can’t complain to other managers/employees that employees complain about you, when you complain about them. Perhaps Mandy was following Katie’s example.

    Certainly an employee should come to their manager with issues, but if they feel they are not being truly heard or understood and their needs or concerns not met, they could honestly feel “thrown to the wolves.” Mandy complaining to her fellow employees was likely a result of frustration and inexperience. Realistically, people talk. If Mandy why she was upset at some point, she probably vented to the wrong person who then gossiped. Remember, Mandy was “polite, demure, ” so Mandy is not likely talking to everyone. Additionally, stories grow taller down the line, and obviously Jason heard it through the grapevine not Mandy. If you disapprove of gossip, then Jason is just as culpable for passing it along.

    The idea employees won’t complain if they feel things are unfair is naïve. Is it upsetting? Yes. The best way to handle it is to calmly talk to Mandy and take responsibility. Let her know the “rumor” you heard (nip it in the bud) and that your concerned she would ever feel that way (showing compassion and that her needs are important.) Get to the bottom of it and see if there is something you can learn to improve your leadership. If she is just a miserable complainer, that will not take responsibility, that will show when you address her issues and things don’t improve. But a manager must not jump to conclusions. Managers must take the talent and help it meet the potentials. Complaining that an employee took more to get to a certain level shows disrespect of the employee. It is sad few noticed the disrespect of the employee.

  13. Latoya Brower says

    I think it is important that when you have he said/she said situations that you do not act off of what one person is telling you. Communicating with staff throughout the project duration is important. At project completion getting feedback from staff as to what they liked or disliked about the project, the management of the project, any associated tasks they were assigned, and what improvements they would suggest, if any, should be conducted. In situations where you have he said/she said going on, I like to call interested parties into a meeting and address the issue. Often times it is hard to get the truth in this situation, but I find it interesting to see how everyone reacts when all involved parties are made to sit face-to-face and discuss what has happened and what is being said. As a manager, if you are giving staff all the tools and resources you can possibly give to complete a job then you have done your fair part and possibly the best that you can do. If you feel an employee is not meeting the standard for getting a job done then that needs to be addressed right away and not when they finally manage to get the project completed. Either way communication is key, setting standards not only for how work is completed, but how staff should interact with each other and management is also important, and creating an environment where staff knows and feels safe to come to you even with issues they have about you is important. Not saying any of this is easy but it is important.

  14. Chauvin says

    Thank you for this, I recently had an employee that I had serious disciplinary issues with. Very charismatic and always looking for ways to break you down. This was my first real year in management and I went into it a bit naive and trusting. Needless to say this employee exploited this to his advantage and when I tried to Discipline him out came the accusations. Some things were true as in me not documenting him correctly, but a lot of it was him just throwing pasta at the wall hoping something would stick. I went through this for a few months until he finally terminated himself for violating company policies. This was a rude awakening for me as I quickly learned I should not trust any of my subordinates too freely.

  15. Brian says

    Some comments about this. I have worked with team members that perform better when they A)Get along with each other B) Be supportive C) Achieve through higher sales, more effective work skills.

    The problem happens when a very disorganized new employee enters a team who has personal problems. I have worked with these teams. This is what I’ve found.

    The employee that throws the other sales team members under the bus cannot be trusted to be in the same room with the other employees.

    This person has the classic Jekyl and Hyde personality, does not mix well with others and distorts what he or she sees and feels.

    This type of toxic employee is bad for companies. They destroy company morale. They also distort their role with the company.

    The see other coworkers as enemies. They will tarnish reputations, damages learning skills, test good employees with fear tactics by distorting what they see and hear.

    This type of bad apple craves revenage on co workers.

    This type of employee needs to be fired as soon as you see them. I know you want cool and collect. Some philosophy.

    But the fact is, is that the type of employee I am describing has a personality type.

    They put themselves in situations to try to show up new employees not move forward, learn, and perform well.

    Fact is. That companies that have toxic employees are doomed.

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