My colleague betrayed my trust, now what?

Dear Joan:

Joan, I work in an office which is a subset of the organization. We provide non-core HR services to the organization. Employees in this work group work as a team or at least they should, but several members actually report to other separate business units.

Lately our group has been criticized by one of the business units for not being on board with their goals or not being engaged with them, to the extent their upper management VP has complained to the HR VP about this concern. I was at a loss at understanding this criticism which caused me a great deal of stress because we do our best to try and provide quality services to all our corporate clients.

I wrote an email to two of my colleagues, both of whom report to other business units, asking for their input on anything in particular they have heard from their respective managers on specifically what it is they are critical of. I also suggested in the email that perhaps they are being wrongly critical of our services and suggested their business units are just deflecting to us what is really a shortcoming of their own business unit’s actions. Further, I suggested, in so many words, that the spotlight should be placed on themselves rather than at my work group.

What I expected is some honest feed back from my two "trusted" colleagues but instead one of them forwarded the email to their manager, even though I marked it private.   As you can image, the comment I made about this other business unit was not taken lightly and caused the business unit manager a great deal of anger that I was suggesting they were the problem and not us.

This colleague, by the way, has a history of "stirring the pot" when it is to her advantage, yet avoids conflict at all cost. She views this as some kind of self-serving political game and has said so on many occasions.

This action has made me quite angry at this employee since I did consider her a trusted colleague and felt my trust in her has been totally ruined. This same employee uses this information to gossip to others when it is to her advantage. I have to remind other colleagues to never share information with her because she will use it to raise her position in the organization.

How does one work with an individual like that and should I really ever trust this person again?


When it looks like a rat, sounds like a rat and even brags about being a rat: it’s a rat. If she frequently talks about stirring the pot to gain political advantage, you should have believed her.

First lesson: never trust her again. Don’t tell her anything you don’t want used against you, or anyone else. In fact, stop telling others not to share information with her, or guess what? When she hears what you said, you can bet she will go after you and try to find even more ways to undermine you. Just keep your opinion to yourself. People will discover her self-serving tactics on their own.

Second lesson: When you (or your group) have been criticized, don’t shop for supporters—especially among peers who are potential competitors of yours. If you don’t think your peers are competitors, you’re not looking critically at the situation. Every peer has his or her own career as priority number one and when a promotion comes up, it’s every man/woman for themselves. They may not stab you in the back like your political colleague but make no mistake—it is not a fraternity of brothers.

Third lesson: If you act persecuted by criticism it makes you look defensive and thin skinned.  When you are criticized by a customer, never turn it around and blame them. Whether it is justified or not, you need to listen to it, take responsibility for it and take steps that will change their perception.

If you feel that the customer has brought on some of their own problems, reframe the criticism in terms of “intentions versus perceptions.” In other words, you and your group have good intentions, so what could you be doing that is creating these negative perceptions?

I know it will be difficult but I recommend that you go and talk with the angry internal customer. If you don’t try to make peace you will have a formidable enemy, which could be an ongoing problem for you. To open the conversation you may have to eat a little crow. It could sound like this, “I apologize for the email that was forwarded to you. I was frustrated and didn’t use good judgment. I reacted defensively and I should have first taken responsibility for what we could do to change those perceptions. I hope we can discuss this openly…I’d really like to talk about ways we could improve our services.” Although this is tough to do, I can assure you that you will not only gain respect from this person, you will effectively counter the damage your peer tried to inflict.

Ask the angry customer for specifics. Listen openly and don’t debate or justify what you did or why you did it. Ask questions and draw him out. When he is finished say, “I appreciate your perspective. Obviously we want to add value to your business and our intentions are good. The group is hard working and we want to do a good job. What can we do more of or less of?” Listen to any advice that is given (whether you use it is up to you.)

So, what do you do about your peer? Once you have had the conversation with the customer she will be neutralized. Then it’s time to play a game of your own. Treat her with courtesy and professionalism but never turn your back again. Keep your own counsel. Anticipate her moves and cover yourself by developing excellent relationships with your customers. Over time she will probably be exposed for the rat she is.

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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