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How do I handle a coworker who is making me look bad?

This week I answer a question about an aggressive coworker making things difficult around the office.

Others had told me “Paula” was cutthroat, but I hadn’t believed it until I became her prey of choice. I’d had my first warning when I’d walked into my office after a 10-day vacation and saw all of my carefully arranged project files disheveled.

I asked the administrative assistant to tell me who’d been in my office. She told me that Paula had “needed” some material from my desk and discovered a few “undone” assignments, gone to our mutual boss and offered to help.

Paula was nowhere to be seen, and I later learned she was with one of my clients. Next, I visited our boss and he told me he’d been disappointed to learn I’d left projects unfinished, that Paula had jumped in to help, and in the process had learned several key clients were a bit unhappy with me.

I asked for the details and he said, “We might as well get this all out on the table.” He then brought Paula in and she presented what had to be lies or at least distortions. It was clear that she’d had his ear and he wasn’t hearing anything she said for the first time.

I assured him that none of what she’d said could be true. Before I’d left for my vacation, I’d contacted each client and talked about next steps. Sure, no client wants a 10-day hiatus, but they’d all been OK.

According to Paula, several clients asked in my absence if she could handle their accounts, including the client whose office she just left. I told my boss I’d call these clients and straighten out things. That’s when our boss told me that he didn’t want me calling the clients who’ve allegedly expressed the desire for Paula to be their rep as we need to present a united front to our clients.

Clearly, my boss has bought what Paula’s told him hook, line and sinker and eliminated my chance to get to the truth. What do I do now? After the meeting, Paula had the gall to tell me, “Sorry this all happened.”

All I could say was, “Nice to know you live down to your reputation.”

Unfortunately, the administrative assistant, and office gossip, overheard me and I know what I said will make its way to my boss’s ears.

How do I recover?

What to do

Don’t do or say anything else until you’ve calmed down. You can’t afford to let Paula foot-sweep you into doing something stupid. Right now, your mutual boss sees Paula as an enterprising employee who’s helped out the firm with clients you left hanging.

Either you blithely ignored client signals that they weren’t happy with you, you should have set up a contingency plan for client needs when you were on vacation, or Paula has convinced several clients and your boss your head’s not been in the game. Is there a kernel of truth to the fact that you let your clients down? Or, has Paula effectively discredited you?

If it’s the former, lick your wounds, double down and do your absolute best with the clients you have left. You occupy an unfortunate zone on your boss’s radar.

If it’s the latter, watch out. When cut-throat peers target you, you can’t afford to take what they’ve done personally, react to their continued sideswipes nor to run. The mistakes you make only embolden them. Instead, you need to mount a counteroffensive.

Reach out to every client immediately. Let them know how seriously you take their needs. Present your boss with your game plan for ensuring total client satisfaction.

Next, you’ve said others told you Paula used cutthroat tactics. Who said what? Also, although you need to honor your boss’s request not to reach out to your former clients, nothing prevents you from detailing their former satisfaction with your efforts. You may ultimately need to present your boss this information, as you may need to show your boss your best side and Paula’s other side.

How do you recover? Stop flailing about and focus. Play your A game with your remaining clients and prepare your case for what’s really happened — you may need it.

Have a question for Lynne? Email her at with subject “SheKnows” and she may answer your question (confidentially) in an upcoming piece on SheKnows.

This post was adapted from Lynne Curry’s Beating the Workplace Bully, 2015, AMACOM. Lynne authored Beating the Workplace Bully and Solutions. You can also follow Lynne @lynnecurry10 on Twitter or access her other posts on SheKnows, or

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