Sarah from Chicago: A co-worker stole a great writing assignment from me that my managing editor assigned me. While I waited a week for the editor to give me more details about the assignment another reporter went behind my back and convinced her to reassign him the major feature article. What can I do without looking like a cry-baby?

It’s difficult to say who most deserves to be peed on in this case. It clearly looks like your co-worker has sabotaged you by stealing a plum assignment from you. But by allowing him to proceed with your project without discussing the reassignment with you, your editor wronged you too – a double whammy. [If I were there, I’d pee under both of their desks on your behalf. But as a human, you will need to address the matter another way.] Although you may not want to hear this, you are not blameless in this mess because you say you waited a week for details about the project rather than jumping on the assignment and claiming it as your turf. When you are fortunate enough to get a great reporting assignment — or any other high quality project at work — it is best to pounce on it, sink your teeth into it and shake the living daylights out of it to show it is yours. This screams ownership. Those around you would be crazy to try to wrestle it from your grip. Your waiting broke one of the cardinal rules of success. Moving forward is essential. Inertia is death.

Speaking of moving forward, I would suggest several tactics: Clarify with the editor that, in fact, the project was reassigned. (Play dumb by remarking to her that you’ve done such-and-such on the assignment. Then sound shocked and aghast when she explains it was reassigned.) Next, stand up for yourself – for your talent and your rights – in a businesslike – not unhinged demeanor. If she won’t give the project back to you, suggest another feature idea that is even more interesting. If you don’t get justice right away, keep coming up with provocative, smart storylines that demonstrate your enthusiasm and skills. Whatever projects you get, do them beautifully.

As for your smarmy co-worker, you have every right to make it known to him that you know what he did and that kind of behavior is not acceptable. It sounds to me like your co-worker not only bullied you but in a way also bullied your editor. You must keep him in your sights. He is not to be trusted. Period.

This brings us to some cold realities about work that I call “beasts in the workplace.” There are essentially 11 different species of beasts in the workplace. Your co-worker who co-opted your assignment is an amalgam of beast #3 (the bully) and #5 (the saboteur). We pretty much know what bullies do – they push and shove and try to take what they want – even if it belongs to someone else. The saboteur is sneakier. He/she goes behind your back so it takes a while to figure out what the heck is going on. The saboteur often makes snide cracks about others’ work that seem like off-handed comments. They’re not. He may “forget” to invite you to an important meeting. He may try to take your good ideas and present them as his own. He invites you to a traditional Japanese luncheon with a big group of friends and then laughs and points at the holes in your socks when you remove your shoes as part of Asian courtesy. But let me not digress.

Here’s what you need to understand about bullies and saboteurs: they usually target the weak – the people who may also be less inclined to stand up for themselves. Also they look for people who are more isolated in their jobs and are not part of influential alliances among employees. (Didn’t you ever learn anything from those interminable “Survivor” reality shows?)

So the 4-step defense against both bullies and saboteurs is:

  1. Develop a talent that will be valuable to your employer and make others aware of it
  2. Make an effort to become part of important office alliances – with peers as well as workers on higher and lower levels
  3. Stand up for your rights
  4. Keep moving…forward (each day, make a conscious effort to do something that should help advance your development at work and as a human being)

Above all, don’t let people mistreat you to the point where you feel depressed or sick. Studies show many people who are bullied at work call in sick. I recall an incident when one guy’s boss was making him feel so inept and berating him so regularly at work that he holed up in his apartment, too terrified to go to work. The boss, if you can believe it, had one of his administrative assistants go to the employee’s apartment building and buzz his apartment. When he pressed the listen button, the assistant delivered a message from the boss-bully: “Ted knows you’re here and he says if you don’t get into the office in the next hour, you’re fired.”

While it would seem like no one in their right mind would put up with torture like that, people can reach a point where they are for all intents and purposes, battered into submission.
The more you have connection with other employees, other departments, friends and contacts in other companies or lines of work…the better off you will be. Outsiders can help us maintain touch with reality. They can bring alternatives to our attention. They offer keys that can unlock our jail cells.

And in some way, that’s what I, as KittyShrink, hope I can do as well. While I may not always give you the answer you’d like to hear, I will give you something to think about. Do you hear keys rattling in the background?

Let me know how things go.

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