Sabotage is a strong word. But it happens in the workplace more often than you think. Dr. Cheryl Carr, organizational psychologist, business leadership strategist, business professor, trainer, and author, says career sabotage can be divided into two categories: corporate or individual.
“Corporate sabotage is when a past employer uses their influence to prevent you from obtaining work somewhere else with negative or derogatory references. Or it could be if an individual or a group of employees decide to drain the company of all productive energy by being disruptive,” she says.
“Individual sabotage is anytime someone places their self and career goals/aspirations in the way of you and your career goals/aspirations in direct opposition even if they do it subtly. They are not for you or your success, period! They can be exceedingly difficult to detect and it can be deadly to your career without your knowledge.”
Sounds scary? No need to panic or start watching your back every time you interact with your coworkers. But it is important to be aware of any subtle signs that people at work are trying to undermine your success. And if that’s the case, keep in mind you might not need to immediately jump ship.
According to Dr. Carr, if you are being sabotaged, you should focus on one question: What is best for you and your career in the long run? Not all sabotage is fatal, and some of it backfires and exposes bad team players. You may remain standing while saboteurs get moved or replaced.
This type of toxic experience might even lead you to assess your company culture with a more critical eye and take empowered career decisions. But let’s start with any suspicions first. If you have any doubt your coworkers are sabotaging your success, look out for the seven subtle signs below.
You feel uneasy around them
Do you feel oddly drained after engaging with a certain coworker but can’t quite pinpoint why? Does something just appear to be off? Listen to your instincts — you may be on the radar of a saboteur.
“Saboteurs use emotional manipulation to control you and it’s easy to determine that they’re not a fountain, they’re a drain. Do a quick check to see if you feel uneasy or bad energy around them all the time,” says Dr. Carr.
They’re aggressively trying to befriend you
An overly friendly attitude is not always a good thing, especially if you sense the person is being pushy and disingenuous. “Saboteurs are usually very fake and will begin their sabotaging by getting close to you with a speed that’s not comfortable to you. They may even request to partner with you on tasks or projects,” says Dr. Carr. “Befriending you by force allows them to observe your work while you’re unaware they’re unearthing any seeming shortcomings/ ineptitude.”
They’re constantly asking you weird questions
Saboteurs tend to ask a lot of seemingly irrelevant questions. According to Dr. Carr, it’s all part of their agenda to win your trust and gather as much information as possible that they can use against you later:
“In fact, once they’ve won your trust, they will begin to sneakily and negatively affect your efficacy at work and begin to make you appear incompetent or problematic. It will come out of nowhere to you but for the saboteur, it is calculated and planned for your demise.”
You’re left out of conversations
Being left out of conversations, decisions or meetings and only finding out after the fact is a telltale sign you’re being sabotaged at work.
“You’re also given the wrong times, rooms and location of meetings or get the notification late. This is a very effective and favorite tactic of the saboteur at the start of the career damage, because it allows them to highlight your mistakes for all to observe your seeming ineptitude that they actually caused, but you take the fall,” says Dr. Carr.
They only give you conditional trust
Do you sometimes feel frustrated about having to bargain with a coworker just to get things done? You might be falling in the trap of a saboteur. “You get conditional approval for things or cooperation for one thing or project task but absolute opposition on everything else. Dangling carrots of ‘If you do this, then this will go well for you.’”
Chaos seems to follow you
If chaos and drama seem to follow you everywhere you go these days, you could be on the receiving end of career sabotage.
“Once a saboteur has behaved friendly long enough to win your trust, they go underground and will begin to negatively affect your efficacy at work and create chaos, all to make you appear incompetent or problematic,” says Dr. Carr.
“They will pit team members against you, falsify reports, and your work equipment may even be broken and software may constantly malfunction all by their interference and outright sabotage,” says Dr. Carr.
You get called out for small mistakes
Another subtle sign of career sabotage to look out for is if you can’t seem to make even the tiniest mistake without catching heat for it — and it’s starting to exhaust you. “Mountains are made out of molehills with anything you’re involved in or do, especially if things go wrong or you make a mistake. YOU can’t make any mistakes, no matter how minor, without it being run up the flagpole with a neon sign sparkling above it for everyone in charge to see.”
According to Dr. Carr, you can also spot potential saboteurs by their extreme reactions to you.” If you speak up in a meeting, the body language changes and the response to you is charged, way over the top flattery or criticism. Either one is a red flag that something is amiss and it isn’t good,” she says.