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How to Be Assertive With an Underhanded Co-Worker

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Relying as it does on interaction, interdependence and cooperation, the workplace is a fertile hotbed for conflicts among personalities, egos, ideas and values. Direct conflict produces obvious hostility or arguments between co-workers. More subtle and more difficult to deal with are efforts by underhanded co-workers to sabotage their colleagues. If you feel someone is backstabbing you, move quickly to watch your back.

What's Happening

It is not unusual for people to try to build themselves up by tearing others down. The co-worker could be using such underhanded tactics as taking credit for your work, belittling you or your suggestions with put-downs, sabotaging your projects or spreading rumors about you. Allowing the problem to continue will only let the culprit think she can get away with it.

Assertive vs. Aggressive

When people are attacked, the natural reactions are to fight back, to flee or to freeze without responding. You can fight back by asserting yourself. Assertiveness is defined in the Collins English Dictionary as “confident and direct in claiming one’s rights or putting forward one’s views.” Assertiveness allows you to stand up for yourself in a way that is not rude or insulting to another individual. Aggressiveness, on the other hand, implies hostility or belligerence. It may achieve your goal but do so in a way that makes enemies.

Discuss It

Arrange for a private one-on-one conversation with your co-worker. Try to figure out what motivates her actions toward you. Rehearse your approach beforehand, either alone or with a trusted friend.

Deal With It

Let the co-worker know you are aware of what is happening and that you will not tolerate it. The individual may deny that she is trying to undermine you, so document specific incidents to point out to her. Put a stop to belittling by calmly standing up for yourself and stating facts. To head off a credit thief, write down your contributions with dates, update your superior with your progress, and correct any misstatements from the thief. Handle the saboteur in the same way, by documenting the progress of your project, making note of any suspect behavior, and keeping your superior informed.

Keep Calm

Don’t get drawn into an argument. Listen to what the troublesome colleague is saying. Tell her how her actions are affecting you. Remain professional and don’t resort to underhanded tactics such as anonymous emails and gossip. Don’t use profanity or name-calling. Stay confident but not arrogant, and be kind and good-humored, not hostile. Ask your colleague if there is something you have done to anger her. You may be surprised to learn that you have contributed to the problem. If that is the case, offer to try to adjust your own behavior in the interests of teamwork. Assure the colleague that you are willing to communicate to work out the conflict.


As a long-time newspaper reporter and staff writer, Kay Bosworth covered real estate development and business for publications in northern New Jersey. Her extensive career included serving as editor of a business education magazine for the McGraw-Hill Book Company. The Kentucky native earned a BA from Transylvania University in Lexington.

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