Dealing With Workplace Betrayal – Part 1

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If you have spent enough time in the workplace, you have probably suffered the surprise of betrayal.  I’m not talking about getting fired or not getting a promotion. Those events are par for the course for any ambitious, risk-taking, goal-oriented employee.  What I’m talking about is when a workplace friend or mentor engages in conduct that advances their career at your expense.  This is the first in a four-part series on Dealing with Workplace Betrayal.

Workplace Betrayal

The Oxford Dictionary defines “betray” to mean:

  • To deliver a person to an adversary through abuse of trust.
  • To hurt someone who trusts you by doing something morally wrong.
  • To reveal secrets or information entrusted as confidential or personal.
  • To be disloyal to a friend.

These actions usually arise in a workplace setting as:

  1. Tattling.
  2. Stealing.
  3. Gossip.
  4. Triangulation.

What to Do When Someone Tattles on You At Work

Everybody makes mistakes.  There are only two kinds – fixable and those you cannot fix (either because they are truly unfixable or because you cannot do it alone). Mistakes either impact others or they don’t. 

Here’s what I suggest you do when you make a mistake (and after 40 work-years, I speak from experience):

Eliminate the Tattler’s Power

  • If the mistake does not impact others (it doesn’t affect their decision-making or cause them to produce faulty or delayed work) and is entirely fixable, fix it and forget about it.
  • If the mistake is fixable but does impact others, such as team members, fix the problem but report it, along with the steps taken to resolve the situation to your team and your supervisor in a note.
  • If the mistake appears unfixable, report it to your supervisor in person as soon as possible.
    • Failing to report an unfixable mistake because you think it’s no big deal could be a career killer in that it becomes a “mistake plus” – a mistake plus bad judgment or, worse, a mistake plus concealment.
    • I also suggest you resist the temptation to publish this type of mistake to anyone other than your supervisor because some people just love to tattle.  Either they think it increases the perception of their importance or they simply love to be the bearer of bad news.  The latter is usually accompanied by a heaping helping of hyperbole.  After all, why tattle about an unimportant mistake?

If you’ve self-reported the mistake to your supervisor, the tattler’s report is old news.  If not, all is not lost.  There are still things you can do to stop the damage.

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Own Your Own Mistake

If your supervisor confronts you about the mistake, your first object is to identify it and own the mistake you made.  That doesn’t mean you should adopt the description of the mistake or the possible repercussions reported by the tattler.  

Owning your mistake requires that you listen to your supervisor, and to think before you speak or try to defend yourself.  Articulate your willingness to correct the problem and apologize — once and sincerely — for the mistake.   Concisely describe the situation and your reasoning. After you have explained, your focus must shift to corrective activity:  fix the mistake with input from your supervisor or others, or take training or education to prevent its recurrence.  Do not replay the “tape” of your mistake to yourself or anyone else.  

Determine Whether to Confront the Tattler

If you cannot figure out who it was who tattled on you, don’t ask.  If you gossiped to others about your own mistakes, it could be anyone and getting tattled on should cure you of doing that again.

If you know the tattler was a subordinate, let it go.  Do not confront a subordinate about going over your head to report your error.  The report could be considered legally protected “whistleblowing” and even a mild mannered comment that the employee should have come to you first could be recharacterized as intimidation or retaliation.

If the tattler was a peer, there is leeway to correct the problem.

  • Wait until you are no longer angry.  An angry confrontation, regardless of the righteousness of your indignation, can result in your termination.
  • Tell your colleague that you know he or she reported you to your supervisor.  Ask them why they did that rather than come to you directly with an offer of assistance.  The only reasons why a colleague should go over your head is (a) the situation is an emergency (and even then, he should grab you and head to the supervisor together); or (b) you’ve behaved badly in response to prior concerns.  If neither is true, then you are well within your rights to ask that your colleague, in future, speak with you before reporting you to your supervisor.

We spend most of our adult lives working.  We should be able to trust our colleagues, supervisors and subordinates.  How we react to betrayal of our trust demonstrates our expectations of others and teaches others how to treat us in the future.

Have you ever experienced a workplace betrayal?  How did you handle it and what was the result Please share.

Next Up in the Series:

Part 2: Dealing with Workplace Betrayal, What to Do When Someone Steals Credit for an Idea. (May 21)

Part 3:  Dealing with Workplace Betrayal, What to Do When You Are the Center of Gossip. (June 4)

Part 4:  Dealing with Workplace Betrayal, What to Do When a Colleague Turns Friend Against Friend.  (June 18)

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