Professional working relationships, just like all other forms of relationships, are not always perfect. Though most of us try our best to get along with our colleagues, there will sometimes be miscommunications, misunderstandings, and even personality clashes. Depending on the parties involved, this can occasionally lead to a situation in which you discover that one of your colleagues has been bad-mouthing you.
Picture this: You and Jim get along well. Your interactions are always pleasant and there have never been any issues between you. Then one day you are talking to another colleague, Sally, who informs you that Jim has been bad-mouthing you behind your back. Specifically, he has been telling others in the office that you are lazy and he has to work extra hours to make up for it. This comes as a surprise to you, because you have always worked hard and delivered your projects on time. As far as you can recall, Jim has never had to take on any of your responsibilities. So, what do you do in this situation?
Firstly, it is a good idea to try and confirm the information Sally gave you with other colleagues, in order to ensure that it is not simply a misunderstanding. After all, Jim may have been joking, or could simply have been making an offhand comment as a result of a bad day. Before taking action, it is best to determine if it is a continuing issue.
If you get confirmation that it is an ongoing issue, there are a number of options you can choose from, each with their own consequences. One option is to decide to do nothing about it. You can thank Sally for the information, and then go back to working with Jim like nothing ever happened. Though this option is unlikely to result in any direct nastiness between yourself and Jim, it is important to remember that Jim’s ongoing disparagement of you to others may impact your professional reputation.
Another option you might decide to go with is retaliation. You can inform Sally that it is, in fact, Jim who is lazy (though this is not true either). There are numerous potential consequences with this option. For one thing, you do not know how Jim will respond when he hears that you are bad-mouthing him. He may retaliate by saying nastier things or he may directly confront you over your falsehood, neither of which are ideal scenarios. Furthermore, bad-mouthing a colleague is unprofessional and may result in a trip to HR later down the line.
Lastly, you can choose to confront Jim. Now, this is not a bad option in itself, depending on how you go about it. Directly marching up to Jim and demanding an apology or explanation could lead to a situation that deteriorates very quickly. As well as this, it is always best not to make a scene in the middle of a workplace. A better option is to open up a discussion with Jim via email. Why email? Well, in an interview for CBS news, career coach Sue Morem says that in these types of situations it is best to document everything. For example, in the scenario outlined in this article you would document when and where Sally told you about Jim’s comments, as well as exactly what she remembers him saying. If possible, you could also see if she is willing to confirm this in writing.
It is important not just to document what you have heard from others, but also how you chose to handle the situation. To achieve this, you might choose to send Jim an email that lets him know, in a professional and courteous way, that you have been informed of the comments he has been making about you. Rather than getting defensive, this would be a good time to ask him where he feels you need to improve and offer to discuss this with him. After all, you may believe you are working hard, but Jim may also have some legitimate concerns. You can also go through this in a private one-to-one conversation and take notes afterwards, though it is preferable to have every interaction in writing in case you need to take it to a higher level.
If Jim responds negatively to your email or continues to bad-mouth you to other colleagues, email him again and let him know that if he continues the behaviour then you will alert a company official or HR. If this email still does not solve the issue, it is best to take all of your documented interactions to the company official or HR to pursue the matter further. This could include mediation between yourself and Jim.
There are many different ways to deal with a colleague bad-mouthing you, some of which are better than others. These include feigning ignorance, retaliating, or confronting your colleague. Whichever option you choose, it is always best to document the comments made about you, as well as any further interaction you have with your colleague, in order to inform a company official or HR about the ongoing problem. As with everything work related, remember to keep your behaviour professional and courteous at all times.