coworker sabotage

How to Deal With Workplace Saboteurs

Workplace saboteurs aren’t common, but they are a huge source of frustration when you encounter one. Christine, from Melbourne, Australia, described a classic example:

“I worked for almost four months to get the project organized. We were right on track for our go-live launch date, and there had been plenty of time for everyone to provide us with input and feedback. Suddenly out of the blue – two days before we were to launch – my coworker sends an email with a list of questions about things that had been overlooked. We had to postpone the launch, and revisit the whole project. The frustration was that, not only could she have sent this list two months earlier – when we had asked for feedback, but in her email, she copied the senior executives – making us all look stupid. I can’t count the number of times she’s done this…”

Dealing with workplace saboteurs is tricky

Dealing with workplace saboteurs is tricky. They usually position themselves as just “looking after the best interests of the company.” They aren’t always trying to make you look bad but, unfortunately, sometimes they are. One thing’s for certain – they don’t understand internal customer service. There are four things you have to do with workplace saboteurs:

4 things you have to do

1. Don’t get angry

When they positioned themselves as ‘just doing the right thing,’ getting angry only makes you look like the one who’s not a team player.

2. Reframe their actions

Workplace saboteurs are successful because they frame their actions in a way that makes them look positive. Challenging their actions within this framework will only make you look bad.

In order to deal with them effectively, you need to reframe the same action in a way that subtly identifies the manipulation – and the negative impact their actions have had.

In the case of Christine, it would be subtly pointing out that the saboteur’s actions, while possibly well-intended, were not entirely productive.

Christine could, for example, send a ‘reply-all’ email back, thanking the saboteur for her input – and requesting that, in future, she provide her feedback more expeditiously. The email could point out how much money could have been saved in person-hours and other costs had the feedback come when requested. The last part of the email would repeat the “thank-you for your efforts” message, positioning Christine as taking the high road.

This will not fix the specific incident, but it will send a clear message to the workplace saboteur that it would be unwise to do things like that again.

3. Have a discussion

It is very important that, emails aside, you have a brief, but pointed discussion with saboteurs. Ask why they chose to take the approach they did.

Christine, for example, should directly ask her coworker why she chose to copy the executive. This direct and pointed question can seem awkward, but it will support the message that, while you welcome feedback, you won’t tolerate being embarrassed. Saboteur’s don’t like to be confronted.

4. Document the situation

It is very important that you document as much as you can, in as great detail as you can. That way, if the behaviour continues, you have some support if things come to a head.

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