Career sabotage by a co-worker — it sounds like the plot of a bad made-for-TV movie. But does it really happen? In this blog, we address a case that may or may not be attributable to co-worker malice.


I was listening to a friend of mine lament yesterday about a co-worker who she felt was trying to sabotage her at work. At first, I was dismissive, thinking that career sabotage was only practiced in bad Lifetime movies. But the more she spoke, the more examples she cited, the more I wondered.

Of course, none of the examples she recalled were as drastic as the ones in those Lifetime movies — that is, none included punctured tires or poisoned lattes — but their cumulative effect was just as toxic. There were numerous e-mails in which the co-worker “nicely” pointed out some detail that my friend had missed. This detail would be something so obscure that my friend was convinced that the woman stayed up half the night finding it. She would copy their boss on this and then very sweetly offer to take care of the issue if she was too busy.

Now e-mails like those are passive-aggressive one-two punches. She is indicating that a ball was dropped but also demonstrating to the boss her gung ho work ethic by volunteering to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, the boss was not one to concern himself with details as long as long-term goals were being met. But then a couple more of these e-mails came through, and my friend started to think “conspiracy theory.”

So let me take the high road for a second. Let’s say the co-worker is freakishly detail-oriented and is genuinely one of those “I just want to help” people and is copying the boss on the e-mail so he can see the positive things she does for the company. She may be totally unaware that in being helpful, she’s also casting a shadow over a co-worker. I believe on some level the co-worker feels very threatened by my friend’s competence. She may not even be aware of her motives. I suggested that she speak to the woman and explain how the e-mails may be interpreted. If the co-worker is dismayed by that, the problem may be solved. If, on the other hand, she twirls her mustache menacingly and laughs, the problem may be just beginning.

But then my friend explained that this person had also taken credit in meetings for things my friend had said. For example, they would be discussing a problem, and my friend would make a point. In a team meeting later, the co-worker would reiterate the point as if she had just thought of it.

This could be another instance in which one could assume malice when there may be none. But years ago, I worked for a guy who I met with regularly. In one meeting, I would mention an idea, and the very next day when we met again, he would present my ideas back to me like they were his own. We eventually got to be on good terms, so that I could jokingly say, “Yeah, I know, I said that yesterday.” He actually wasn’t aware he was doing it — somewhere the idea I espressed mingled around in his brain for 24 hours, and he’d just remembered it as his own. Some people are like that. Is that the case with this person? I don’t know. Is my friend insecure and paranoid? I don’t know that either.

I’d like to know your experiences with career sabotage if you have any. I’m curious as to how often this really happens.