The old adage "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" conveniently omits any reference to frenemies -- people who seem like an ally one minute and an adversary the next. In the workplace, these relationships can be common. For example, consider the colleague who happily collaborated with you on a high-profile project only to claim full credit as soon as the project wrapped.
Unfortunately, distinguishing a true comrade from someone who has an eye on your job can seem like a job in itself. Here are five tips for protecting yourself from the damage and stress a suspicious office friendship can cause:
1. Look at yourself first
Before you address a colleague's iffy behavior, look at your own. You could be contributing to a competitive environment with your own actions. Subtle moves and attitudes -- assuming you know more than a colleague because you've worked for the company longer, for example -- can make an enemy out of a work friend.
2. Avoid assumptions
Misunderstandings sour more workplace relationships than fundamental conflicts do. If you've heard that a colleague has been talking behind your back, for instance, don't overreact. If it's a minor matter, try to let it slide. If it seems more significant, ask the person about it directly. You might find that you were misinformed.
If that doesn't seem to be the case, consider what might have led to the perceived slight. Ask whether it was a reaction to something you said or did. Regardless of your frenemy's response, you've established that you are aware of her behavior. If problems continue, you'll know to treat her much more cautiously going forward.
3. Resist retaliating
When you've confirmed that a colleague has done something objectionable, like taking credit for one of your ideas, it's tempting to respond in kind, or at least to bad-mouth the person to other colleagues. This can turn a minor tiff into a major battle. Indulging in gamesmanship at work not only makes you look petty and untrustworthy, but it also takes up time and energy that's better spent on work.
4. Get it in writing
You can protect yourself from a frenemy without shutting down the lines of communication. In fact, you should err on the side of overcommunicating -- preferably in writing -- when you're in doubt about someone's behavior. Whenever possible, use email for your interactions.
If the relationship becomes more counterproductive, an email exchange can be referred to indefinitely, unlike a half-remembered phone call or hallway discussion. The knowledge that a record exists could prevent a would-be adversary from misrepresenting the facts in the first place.
If you work closely with your frenemy, a clear separation of labor can save you a lot of trouble. An email at the outset of a project that clearly defines your respective responsibilities can prevent misunderstandings and make it much more difficult for a colleague to take advantage of you.
5. Consider your boss's point of view
Prematurely complaining to your boss about a shaky workplace relationship can escalate the conflict. Before you bring the matter to your manager's attention, think about how you'd want the situation to be handled if you were the boss. If you're having trouble deciding, write out a "just the facts" version of your complaint, omitting any subjective judgments or personal gripes. If it still sounds like something your boss would want to know about, present it as objectively as possible, explaining how the situation threatens productivity.
Professional relationships should be handled with care, but being overly guarded for fear of being taken advantage of can prevent you from developing the kind of strong working friendships that can benefit you throughout your career. Give every colleague the benefit of the doubt, at least initially. If your trust turns out to have been misplaced, keeping shared goals in mind -- a more productive workplace, a more satisfying career -- can help you live and work with the problem.
Robert Half International is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 350 offices worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit www.roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, view our career bloopers video series at www.roberthalf.com/dont-let-this-happen-to-you or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roberthalf.
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