HomeBusiness Ethics

Dealing with ugly

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

“He stabbed me in the back and then threw me under the bus,” a colleague complained, once upon a time.

“Well, at least he got the sequence right,” I managed to keep myself from saying, recognizing that discretion is sometimes the right solution for even the best of straight lines. I was also was just smart enough to avoid offering just-too-late advice.

There will come a time, in your career as in mine, when you find yourself on the wrong side of backstabbing, under-the-bus throwing, or scapegoating, either separately or in some combination.

In case you are or might be vulnerable, here are some pointers.

The first: As is almost always the case, an ounce of prevention yields the usual utility, so be on the alert for warning signs. Some I’ve seen:

Your manager isolates you from key relationships. Backstabbers and scapegoaters rely on their ability to control what others hear about you. If you have positive working relationships with some people who matter and your manager lets you know he’ll be their liaison from here on in, to ensure everyone hears a consistent message or some such pretext … watch out. There’s a good chance the consistent message will be that you’re the source of whatever problems might be cropping up.

Your manager informs you that it’s important to control what his manager hears. There are a couple of variants of this:

Variant #1: “She won’t have the patience for the complexities of the situation.” She might not, unless it’s something that’s about to blow up. And as your manager probably doesn’t understand the problem to the level of depth you do either, and as it is about to blow up, guess who’s being set up to take the blame.

Variant #2: “Alarming her about the risks and issues we’re facing would be counterproductive. We need to handle this under the radar.” Same situation, different phony rationale. Especially in project situations, risk and issue management call for transparency, so everyone buys into the remediation plan.

If you’re told to conceal the facts, make sure you receive this work direction in writing, and make sure both your manager’s name and his manager’s name are on the documentation.

And if your manager accuses you of just trying to cover your posterior, your answer is, “You bet I am. If this blows up in all of our faces, I’m the one who will need the cover.”

Closely related: You decide to discuss a situation directly with your manager’s manager and she gives you air time but expresses no real interest in the situation or your recommendations.

It might be that you cry wolf a lot. If you do, stop. If you don’t, your manager might be setting you up to be a scapegoat later on when things do blow up.

You stop hearing from people you used to interact with frequently and casually. If this happens to you, it might be you’ve done something to cause it. Assume that is the case and take steps to fix whatever you broke.

Even if you didn’t break anything, use your concern as the entirely legitimate pretext for circumventing a backstabber’s attempts to warn people off when it comes to being your friend and ally.

And, it all blows up anyway. The fact of the matter is, it’s much easier to be on the wrong side of backstabbing, bus-throwing, and scapegoating than preventing them from happening. No matter how much you work to preserve and fortify your working relationships with the people who matter, backstabbers are what they are because they’ve learned how to succeed through these tactics.

They’re better at this game than you are.

If it happens to you, your manager will likely recommend that you not try to fight the outcome or dispute it.

Sometimes, that’s good advice: Fighting it keeps the subject alive, where moving on to something else can give you a clean start … so long as those whose image of you has been tarnished aren’t an important part of your future.

But don’t take your manager’s word for it. After all, his name is on your performance so he isn’t a disinterested advisor. More, if you decide to fight back your manager is left with two bad choices: (1) Back you, which means he expends political capital on your behalf, or, (2) participate in burning you instead.

For your manager it’s a no-win situation. For you it’s a tough, tough choice.

Comments (6)

  • It depends.

    If it’s completely out of the blue and you are a woman, black, or Hispanic, it likely has to do with race or gender prejudice. Gather your facts and vet them those of your group who don’t work at your company. Then, find your inner warriors, and if they concur, fight with efficiency and accuracy from those inner warrior places. From that point on, stay awake, but never doubt yourself. It’s usually a far more dangerous situation than you can imagine.

    On the other hand, if you are not a member of a target group, you are still likely to be a geek, if you are working in IT, and you may have been missing informal cues of a problem with performance and/or company culture.

    If you’re lucky, can find a mentor or coach to help.

    My 2 cents.

  • I don’t have any good recommendations, unfortunately. However, if you’re worried about keeping your job make sure you learn how to run core business functions that no one else can or wants to bother with. They will be less likely to let you go if it will hurt the business (if they care about the business).
    Also, I think this article is good at pointing out that while there are all these wonderful motivational books out there about companies working together towards a common goal, its naive to think that its a reality for every company (or for every section of a company). Unless you know everything that the employee in question has seen in their life, you really have no idea what their true perspective of the work place is. All work places are not created equal and there are places in the world you can’t just hop to another employer.

  • It’s early in the week, but I was expecting this column to catalyze a barrage of feedback. Quite good – thanks.

    For me, the mention of discussing things with your manager’s manager returns me to my CIO’s claim of having an open door. I utilized it for quite some time, perhaps two to four times a year. Typically casual talk – he was kind of an interesting fellow – but also to discuss business. I did, after all work directly with him on some initiatives. From very early on, it was evident my manager knew of my visits before I got back to my desk. But when I got new manager (someone who had been with the company for many many years), I got called into his office after one of my visits. He explained that my allegiance was with him and my team lead. Basically, he felt threatened by my talking to the CIO.

    In the end, Mr. CIO’s open door was a total crock, and I have little to say to him even if he starts the conversation. Fortunately, I’m at little risk – I’m recognized for my good work and am a manager myself now. My advice is vet the upper echelons out before you try engaging with them.

  • Document, document, document. The moment you start getting warning signs, record and save everything.

    • No argument. And yet, in a don’t-rock-the-boat culture, where the damage is social rather than part of any official performance evaluation, the documentation generally won’t matter.

  • Walk the walk. Instead of trying to tell people the kind of person you are (or are not), look for opportunities to let your work ethic – and your ethics – demonstrate the kind of person you are. People are generally not idiots and will see the truth in your actions. This can deflate the power of the unethical actor.

    Along those lines, don’t stab back at the backstabbers. Be the better person. You will retain your personal dignity and stand a better chance of gaining the respect of others. In many cases, not responding at all is your best defense.

    Make some friends at work and, unless the situation is especially toxic, they can become your allies. Find time to build relationships, to talk about hobbies and families, to have a meal together. People are less likely to stand idly by and watch a friend be persecuted.

    Find a trusted and confidential mentor who can listen while you vent AND can guide you. Venting to the cat can be satisfying, but isn’t very productive. You can find mentors in trade associations, other companies, alumni groups, and at church. Probably best not to find an in-house mentor if you can’t trust the politics.

    Be discreet… but bide your time and keep your options open. Look for opportunities within your company or elsewhere. If you find a good option, go for it. But, be sure it’s a good option because you don’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

    And, speaking of fire, don’t burn any bridges. If you manage to emerge unscathed from the backstabbing situation, resist the temptation of getting revenge. If there is something unethical or dangerous going on, certainly be a whistle-blower if you can make the case, but revenge for the sake of revenge has a way of coming back around.

    Above all else, as has been said, document everything. Never underestimate the power of CYA.

Comments are closed.