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What to do when a colleague is undermining you

Let’s be clear, behaviour by a colleague who attempts to damage your reputation, even sabotage your job, by maliciously and surreptitiously undermining you, is akin to bullying and can be just as damaging. The damage caused is likely to impact your mental health as well as your career and workplace relationships.

Sadly, I am coming across this type of issue quite a lot. Understandably, being persistently undermined by a co-worker (even a junior colleague) can make one feel as though they are being isolated, ignored, pushed out, and may even cause them to want to leave the organisation altogether. We are not talking about clear and obvious competitive behaviour, which can be relatively normal, even healthy for a company: undermining is far more insidious and can be difficult for employers to spot.

We have written previously about the need for employers to deal effectively with bullying in the workplace. In that article we highlighted the need for a change in culture to prevent boards from seeing accusations of bullying as a nuisance or the result of a “personality clash”. Victims of abuse of any kind in the workplace must have the support of senior management, but this depends on a healthy culture from the boardroom down (more on that later).

So, how can you tell if a colleague is undermining you? The chances are they will be openly critical of you to others and may even plant negative thoughts in your head about your employer, stirring up your discontent.

Perhaps you have noticed that your colleague seems to be claiming credit for work you have done. They may try to disadvantage you by keeping you out of the loop when it comes to important information.

The tricky thing about all of this is that the behaviour is hard to pin down. When you start sharing your suspicions, you might feel as if you sound petty. Lots of small acts of sabotage may not seem much in themselves, certainly not individually, but together they demonstrate a pattern of behaviour that could be keeping you awake at night and making you dread coming into work.

How to deal with undermining behaviour

Unfortunately, I tend to come across undermining behaviour when it has already reached the stage where the relevant employee (the victim, if you like) wants to leave, which for a variety of reasons may not be as straightforward as it sounds, particularly where there is no alternative role to go to. However, before things get that far, there are things you one can do to try and tackle the problem.

Even at board level, undermining behaviour can rear its head. If you are a director who is being undermined by a fellow board member, it can be particularly difficult to gain support from fellow directors. In some cases, undermining behaviour is a consequence of a toxic workplace culture and in such situations, the healthiest option for you may be to move on.

Firstly, start making a note of each incident (the behaviour, the time and date, any witnesses to it and/or supporting evidence), no matter how small. Save undermining emails and jot down conversations and calls that left you feeling vulnerable. A diary is very useful for this purpose, but should be kept discreetly and not shared.

It is quite possible that you are not the only victim, so it is worth discreetly sounding out fellow colleagues to see if anyone else has experienced similar behaviour. There is strength in numbers and you may be able to stop the behaviour if a few of you make the difficult colleague (the “underminer”) aware that you are onto them.

When communicating your suspicions – either with your line manager or the perpetrator themselves – stick to the facts and be direct. If you are being excluded from meetings, say so and ask why. If you are not being considered for a promotion that you feel worthy of, make it clear that you’d like to be in the running. I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to communication openly and honestly when faced with any kind of bullying behaviour.

We have a lot of experience of helping senior individuals in situations where ‘bullying’ is a factor. If we can assist you, then please get in touch.

If any of the issues in this article resonate and you would like advice on your particular circumstances, contact Richard Port at Boardside by emailing