Dealing with the workplace sniper

Dear Joan:

I am having great difficulty in dealing with a woman at work in my team who constantly puts others down and berates them behind their back, along with pointing out any and all flaws when covering their desks when they are away.  She can be very nasty. 

I think I've made the situation worse by having befriended her 6 years yrs ago...

Three or four of us have been eating lunch together with her for years now, the other girls don't know how to deal with her either - and now she's been moved to my team.  She makes it a habit of coming into my cubicle area, to tell me how "so-and-so did this", and "isn't she just this and that"... I try to deflect her by getting up to get a glass of water and escort her out of my area, which works, but I can't keep drinking sooooo much! 

She is very unpredictable, almost like a school bully, I'm afraid that she could turn on me if I say the wrong thing.  I need the right words to say, without offending her. 

My worst fear is that others see me negatively because of her actions and gossipy ways.  I need to know the right thing to say to her, to tell her that I'm not interested in listening to the negative things she has to say about others, without causing a very unpleasant atmosphere within our team. 

Keep in mind her "fly off the handle" unpredictability! Thanks for your help. 


Sometimes being too nice is all wrong. You are probably seen as this person’s friend and that is very bad for your own reputation. 

People like this befriend colleagues by playing that old junior high game of gossiping about someone else, in order to feel closer to the person with whom they are gossiping. This is a mark of an insecure, needy and immature person.  You need to D-I-S-T-A-N-C-E yourself from this poisonous person before her venom taints your reputation. 

School yard bullies win allies through intimidation: “You’d better not cross me, or I’ll make your life miserable, just like I made everyone else suffer who wanted to pull away from me.”  

You can choose not to be intimidated and you can deflect any negative fallout by taking a few simple steps: 

First, have a conversation with the other women you lunch with and tell them that you are going to start distancing yourself from her. Propose that you all stick together on this and support each other if the bully starts to attack any one of the group. Encourage them to follow the same strategy you are going to use. 

Here’s the strategy: Every time the bully starts to berate or put someone else down, you neutralize it by supporting the person she is attacking. For instance, Bully: “Don’t you think Shari is just completely disorganized?” You: “Shari has a lot on her plate. If I had all that to do, I’d probably be disorganized, too.” Bully: “Can you believe how stupid Sue’s remark was in that meeting?” You: “I’m sure Sue had good intentions and she was just trying to understand the issue.” 

When you actively disagree with the gossip, the Bully will soon realize you are pulling away from her. If she doesn’t get the hint, be more direct. “I really have so much to do; I can’t spare any time to chat.” And if she still is clueless, “I’d really prefer that we not discuss our fellow team members. I think it’s important that we all get along and so I’d like to try to give them the benefit of the doubt. I certainly hope they will do the same for me.” 

If your poisonous friend turns on you, here’s the antidote: ignore her. She can only hurt you if you let her. Treat her with the same civility and professionalism you always have. If she gets really nasty and tries to retaliate by badmouthing you to your boss, go to your boss and explain exactly what your strategy has been and why you are distancing yourself from her.  

If the other women are too insecure to band together against this behavior, that is their problem. When they finally tire of her, they will come to you to ask for help with their own strategy.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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