Sunday, September 12, 2010

Moving on after a personal attack by co-worker

A reader writes:

I recently had a personal attack made on my by an equal co-worker.  Here is what she said:

"I’ve never been addressed verbally or in writing so belligerently and unprofessionally in my life. You disgrace this company. If you want to talk to me, as a civil professional, you know my number."

I did not respond to the attack but did get my manager engaged, she disagreed with the comments made against me and told me I am one of her best professional, most ethical people on her team that I am a well respected employee and so on.  She apologized for not paying closer attention to the emailed verbal attack.

There was a meeting with my co-worker, manager and HR representative, where the co-worker was to apologize. While she used the word "apology", I felt she did not apologize for the personal attack.

How do I get pass the lack of ownership, or is that these attacks are really not about the person attacked but the person's own attack on their situation? I really need to understand this and I have been told I must continue to work with her. I have indicated that I am a professional person and will do so but I am struggling with the lack of ownership for the attack on me.

I realized today, I may need professional help to get past this attack. Any information would be most helpful.

First, let’s look at the situation. Your manager clearly disagrees with your co-worker’s comments and considers you one of the most valuable members of her team. She apologized for not paying closer attention to your co-worker’s email (it sounds as though she didn’t take your co-workers comments seriously). Once she realized how hurtful it was to you, she arranged a meeting with the two of you and HR. Your co-worker then gave a half-hearted coerced apology.

You are correct the co-worker’s attack isn’t about you it is about her. All you did was point out she made a mistake and she went berserk and attacked your character. She most likely is not capable of giving a real apology.

In my own personal attack with my company’s HR manager I wrote about here she never apologized either. As you may recall, she told me I was the weakest manager our company had. What bothered me was not that she never apologized, but that she actually believed I was a weak manager. It took me almost a year to recover from that statement. I even questioned whether I should stay in management or look for a job as a financial analyst. There were times when I too felt I should talk to a professional.

What I did do that was helpful and made me stronger in the long run:

Like you, I talked to management and several co-workers about my situation. I received positive feedback and was told by our company’s chairman that I was actually one of our company’s strongest managers. Throughout the year I consulted with my boss and a trusted manager of another department about how to interact with her.

I worked out a lot - at least three times a week. It helped me keep a clear head and allowed me to sleep better so I could focus on my work the next day.

I kept a self-discovery journal. Each day I wrote down three positive thoughts or occurrences from the day. At the end of the week I reviewed the week’s entries and wrote a small paragraph about what I’d learned about myself that week. I did this faithfully for over a year and still enjoy going back and reading those entries.

The act of writing. Before this happened I hadn’t realized how healing writing could be. Not only writing in my journal, but also writing on my blog and commenting on other blogs as well. I wrote not only about my personal attack, but on many other topics as well. It was a nice diversion to think about something else and I was continuously surprised and amazed how supportive and knowledgeable the blogging community is.

I continued to be active in my professional organization volunteering for leadership positions. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone; making cold calls and speaking in public. All of this (even stammering a tad speaking in public) allowed me to be a stronger person in the end. Now a year and a half later, it is easier for me to recognize when someone says or acts in a way that is more about them than me. Instead of internalizing their negative actions and words I now think wow they must be in a bad place.

So my best advice to you is to maintain your focus on your job and continue with your personal standards of courtesy, decency and professionalism. Do whatever it takes to keep a clear head: work-out, talk to a trusted friend, go see funny movies, make an appointment to talk to a professional. The fact that your co-worker is a jerk has nothing to do with you. She will be that way whether you work with her or not. Good luck!

I answered the above reader’s question based on my own personal experience. If anyone has additional advice or comments please chime in.


  1. I've never had exactly that experience, but did work for years - way too many years - with a co-manager who was totally out for herself and didn't care whom she stomped on in the process. Eventually senior management got the picture and she left - thank goodness! In the meantime, tho, it was awful.

    While many others shared my distrust of her, they were not willing to publicly own it, and so I had a reputation of disliking her - which I did, but the disLIKE was based on disTRUST. I found that I needed to
    1) always have a third person in the room when I had a talk with her,
    2) owned the fact that we did not get along,
    3) watched my back and made sure that my supervisor was aware of all contact with her - good and bad, and
    4) most importantly, I always gave her the benefit of the doubt.

    It took five years too long, but eventually she showed her colors to too many people.

    Best of luck in living with this co-worker. It will not be easy.

  2. Webb,
    Great advice thanks.

  3. Yes good advise, but the sad part is the company generally keeps those who cause so much drama (if not promote them). 5 years sticking it out is a very long time to be unpleasant.

  4. Five years is a long time to stick it out in an unpleasant situation. Not good for your mental health. Sometimes employees need their job and don't have a lot of options.