7 Ways to Deal with an Untrustworthy Coworker

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If you have ever worked in a competitive environment or are working in one right now, the chances are that you will have encountered a coworker who cannot be trusted. These coworkers are typically all peaches and cream when they are with you, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth or indeed anywhere else, but away from you, they do a very good job of acting like Judas himself, pulling out all the stops to get you fired. Whether they are stealing your ideas, betraying you or belittling you, these guys cannot be trusted; you need them around you like a neck needs a pain.

The good news is that your instincts will have identified who these people are. Direct retaliation, tongue biting or ‘going turtle’ (retreating into your shell) are common ways people deal with such people, but untrustworthy, lying, backstabbing coworkers require more planned approaches. What’s needed are strategies to help you manage these guys before the emotional scars from dealing with them start to form, causing you to feel stress, fatigue and at worst, lead you into a state of depression.

Untrustworthy coworkers are usually ambitious, but unsure of themselves. Otherwise, they would be competing by the fair-play rules of the corporate game, wouldn’t they? Unfortunately, they lack the self-awareness to change, and it is this lack of self-awareness that lies at the heart of the following seven strategies, strategies which you can use to help you protect yourself from their actions.

1. Build allies


If you have an untrustworthy coworker, particularly one who has your boss’s ear, it is crucial that you begin to polish your own image in your department. At fairly regular intervals, seek feedback from your boss on the quality of your work. There’s no need to use these meetings as an opportunity to ‘set the record straight’ on matters involving your coworker; rather, think of them as a way to get feedback that will strengthen your efforts to make you your absolute best self. It’s vital to keep your untrustworthy coworker out of the discussions as much as possible, to avoid your boss interpreting them as your deliberate attempt to undermine your coworker (of whom your boss may approve. Your coworker may also be particularly good at impressing the ‘powers that be’; all the more reason not to go against him in these meetings). These meetings will give you a chance to review all the steps you’ve taken to improve your work, show an interest in the challenges facing your company and position yourself as a team member who stands ready to handle any challenge. During these meetings, be alert for two things: further ways you can help and signs of how your own work is perceived. The meetings should serve to protect you, to some extent, against your untrustworthy coworker’s charges against your conduct or your performance.

If you’re in the unfortunate position of having a boss who is firmly on the side of the untrustworthy coworker or who is unsupportive of you, for whatever reason, you may need to involve your HR department, who should have no vested interest in protecting your coworker’s interpretation of events.

2. Always be prepared

Think of your place of work as a battlefield where there is always an enemy lurking around. So you must constantly be on your guard; you must always be on the defensive with an untrustworthy coworker. They may be all cookie-cutter niceness when they’re with you, but don’t be fooled. Unless you have evidence to the contrary, take everything they say with a metaphorical pinch of salt.

3. Keep your ideas to yourself

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Learn to keep your mouth shut and be vague or evasive in conversations with your untrustworthy co-worker. Keep those brilliant ideas to yourself no matter how enthusiastic you feel. We all get emotional and we can all get carried away. But the consequences of revealing too much could be detrimental: your coworker could get a promotion out of your idea, leaving you stuck in the same old position for years to come. Yet another blow to your ever deflating ego.

4. Be resolutely positive

If you find yourself the victim of your coworker’s lies, seek to maintain a cool, calm and collected composure in spite of the fact that your untamed rage is threatening to explode. A response such as, “I’m surprised to hear that” will suffice when you hear an untruth. Show no emotion; present only the facts. If you are able to maintain a constructive tone of voice, this may be enough to put a dent in your coworker’s negative portrayal of you and burnish your own halo, based on your mature response. You shouldn’t need to make any counter attacks on your coworker; your professional attitude and composed manner will be your weapons here.

5. Avoid sharing your personal life details with them

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A problem shared with an untrustworthy coworker is a problem multiplied. Though the temptation to elicit warm and fuzzy sympathy in a moment of emotional weakness might prove overwhelming, beware of reaching out to an untrustworthy coworker. At the very least, pick your confidant carefully – cultivate more honest people elsewhere in your department. Here’s why: any information shared with an untrustworthy coworker could be retold to your boss and might end up damaging you in some oblique way. Sympathetic nods simply aren’t worth the risk of damaging your credibility.

6. Facts are your friends

If you ‘turn a blind eye’ to inaccuracies or misdeeds, you will be complicit in their becoming habitual. So you need to expose any wrongdoing in the cold light of hard facts.

7. Keep a paper trail

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If you are to beat your untrustworthy coworker at their own game, it’s crucial that you begin to get task assignments, status reports etc in writing. This way, you have evidence of what has been done or not done, and by whom. After having a verbal conversation with your coworker, always send them a pleasant email that summarises your discussion, including dates or deadlines. An example could be, “Jerry, just to summarise our conversation, you have agreed to complete the audit report by the end of Friday, 30 November. I will take responsibility for circulating the sales results which I have prepared to all the heads of departments. If I have misunderstood any of our conversation, please email me to this effect. Thank you.” When your coworker doesn’t follow through, you can take comfort from the fact that you have a paper trail as evidence of what was agreed upon. Without such documentation, all you have to rely on is hearsay and innuendo. Bosses tend not to respond well to this; your credibility will be enhanced with evidence.

There’s a single truth that unites all of these strategies: you must change your own behaviours for change to occur. This is because, as we all know, people cannot change people; they can only change themselves. All the above points focus on what you must do or do differently to get a different response.

Have you had the experience of working with an untrustworthy coworker? If so, what strategies did you use to help you manage the effects of their behavior? Share your comments below.