6 ways to identify and break free from manipulative coworkers

It may be difficult to unmask a sneaky coworker who has selfish motives. We’ve asked work experts for cues on what to look for and how to navigate through the treachery to keep your work life more productive.

Here are some of the ways it happens and how you can break free of the patterns.

They aren’t giving you the whole picture

If the sneaky coworker is giving only one side of the story, there’s more you need to know. “It’s very common for workers to tell only their side of the story — whether it’s to bosses or coworkers,” says David Bennett, a Columbus, Ohio-based counselor, life coach, and coauthor of seven self-help books. Along with his brother, they own Theta Hill Consulting.

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“That person — always complaining about another person, or even evaluating coworkers — may not be telling you everything. Often, the person who tells his or her story first is considered the most credible” Bennett stresses it’s important to remember that there are always multiple sides to every story, and consulting all sides before making decisions is crucial.

They are fixated on someone

The concept of ‘targeting” as Bennett explains is when particularly controlling workers get in their head that someone should be fired. “After this gets in their heads, they will do whatever they can to get this person fired,” Bennett says. “Often, that person is also excluded from work social groups, and given unfair evaluations.”

If you feel like you are being targeted, Bennett advises it’s important to assert yourself to whoever is in charge and outside the influence of the person doing the targeting: “Everyone who I know who has been ‘targeted’ has eventually either quit or been fired, so if you feel this is happening, it’s important to assertively fight for your rights.”

They attempt to distract you

Coworkers who aren’t pulling their weight, or understand they have done something that’s not right, often resort to this behavior, Bennett says. He says common antics include starting conversations related to things they know you enjoy, like your hobbies, to distract you from their poor performance.

“While sometimes this is just conversation, I have dealt with many coworkers who would always come to the bosses on Tuesday — after they missed five Mondays in a row — to discuss football because they knew it would get the boss’ mind off of their absenteeism,” Bennett adds.

You get a bump in responsibility without compensation

Giving you more importance — without increasing your pay, is a tool for managers to get more work from their employees without providing more compensation, Bennett believes. “By giving you important titles like ‘you’re now our ‘lead marketer.’ they are motivating you to feel like you have to give more of your time and energy. However, with more work and importance should also come more pay — or at least perks. So, be aware of this.”

They try to bring down your morale

Laura MacLeod, LMSW, a New York-based HR Expert, consultant, and therapist, says when a coworker is complaining excessively, that could be a sign they want to sabotage your success. She recommends an immediate dismissal of their complaining.

“Interrupt with a smile and say, ‘So sorry, Jane. I really can’t talk now. I’m in the middle of an important work task.’ Then move back to your work area and get to work,” MacLeod says.

They are a gossip mill

If coworker talks about others and begins to stir the pot of personalities and politics, MacLeod advises to immediately make an excuse and get away. Tell the trouble-maker that you need to make a call, that you need to get a report out, or you have to call a family member about a pressing matter.

“If you are there, whether contributing or not — you’ll get tangled up in the mess,” she adds. “Get away fast. The sneaky coworker feeds off people who are willing to take it and don’t know how to get away.”

Once you set up this pattern — that you’re not available, the manipulating coworker will look for someone else to fit the bill, MacLeod says.