How to Handle Being Badmouthed at Work

Being Badmouthed

“To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.” – Tacitus

What do you do when you discover that an employee or colleague has been badmouthing you?

An example:

Several years ago (over the course of six months), I reduced Ellen’s responsibilities (and job title). Although she had many excellent qualities, she was someone who saw business as a struggle for personal power rather than a struggle toward a common goal – which is not the way a good leader should think. On top of that, we had different ideas about the way a major project should be handled.

But since Ellen was very strong in some ways (a hard worker, passionate, tough, and motivated), I didn’t want to fire her. Instead, I figured out a way to create an important job that she could excel at.

Although we never talked about it, I felt that she understood what I tried to do. That seemed like a reasonable expectation, since I had simplified her job, focused her attention on work she could do well, and maintained her income level even though her work load was considerably reduced. All subsequent communications from her were as positive as ever, so I decided that the transition had, indeed, gone well.

I was wrong. As it turned out, she didn’t like it at all. And she expressed her bad feelings in very strong terms in several memos sent to a few colleagues.

Those memos made their way back to me, and I was shocked to see how she felt.

My first reaction was, “After all the time and effort I spent trying to find a new job for her! I should have just fired her!”

But I got over that and eventually came back to the idea that I always come to when I hear that someone’s been talking negatively about me behind my back: You can’t pay attention to what people say about you when you are not present.

There are three reasons:

  1. They are venting – so much of what they are saying is exaggerated. (Haven’t you ever said something about someone that was an exaggeration?)
  2. The feelings they are expressing in the heat of the moment may be temporary. (Think about how your opinion of certain colleagues has changed over the years.)
  3. Most of the negative feelings that turn out to be permanent really won’t affect you. It’s just talk.

So don’t worry about what people say behind your back. It is mostly a reflection of how powerless they feel. Focus on doing what you think is best, and hope that your detractors will come around to seeing the wisdom of your ways.

If you want to succeed, you must learn to be a leader. Leadership implies change. Change involves fear and loss. When fear and loss are present, resentment is commonplace. Blame too.

So steel yourself against resentment, because it is the price you pay for making things better.

If you do get word that there are grumblings against you, pay them no mind. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it might be better to confront the offender. You’ll only make matters worse. Instead, continue focusing on your common business goal, as opposed to your relationship, and hope the emotional bruises heal.

If the grumbler’s productivity decreases measurably, you can probably conclude things will go from bad to worse. In such a situation, it’s advisable to dismiss him. But if you can get the relationship back on track, chances are it will be a good one.

What is said about you behind your back usually means nothing, and it always says more about the speaker than it does about you. Ignore it. Pay attention to what people say to your face. Expect to be treated with respect – and demand it if it doesn’t come. Focus on the work and not the personal drama.


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  • Sarah Hodson Grad

    Any thoughts about when these are peers? I feel like I constantly only hear someone has a problem with an action or decision I make at work because they tell my boss in front of someone who will tell me. Reminds me of high school. I feel like my boss, who is pretty direct, not telling me is a good sign, but its hard to be awesome in a vacuum.

    • Sarah, the answer is in

      a) Stoic Philosophy

      Control what you can (your thoughts). Cope with what you can’t (Other people’s actions). Concentrate on what counts (doing what is right).


      b) Mark’s final paragraph:

      What is said about you behind your back usually means nothing, and it
      always says more about the speaker than it does about you. Ignore it.
      Pay attention to what people say to your face. Expect to be treated with
      respect – and demand it if it doesn’t come. Focus on the work and not
      the personal drama.

      • SUE SMITH

        Great advice

      • Jabeen Shazia Iqbal

        That is the best part :)..

  • Jp

    Excellent. You stated what I intuitively wanted to do but was afraid it was the wrong management approach. Was forgetting that I am growing my business……

  • Nancy Taylor

    What about if the badmouthing is from a peer to other peers, and the others come to you because they have had enough? This has gotten to the point that the others are disgusted with the words used & came to me, saying that there is no valid reason for the badmouthing. They want me to report it and they will have my back? The workplace has become toxic behind my back. I don’t take the words personally but my peers were afraid to be decent toward me in case they’re treated the same way. How can a person let this go?


    Syncronity is REAL. I feel extremely fortunate that in my 20 plus year career I’ve never had to deal with this nonsense…until now. I had an incident happen today that was hurtful and very much on point with this article… the fact this was publish today of all days seems like the universe was trying to tell me something. Thank for the great advice.

  • Donna Caudill

    If only a handful of people have a problem with you that’s one thing, and does indeed point to probable personal issues on their part.
    If a much larger percentage of people have a problem with you, that’s a different story. Never become so egotistical that you automatically assume that you’re fine, and it’s everyone else who is the problem.
    Yes, sometimes being a leader involves making unpopular decisions, but it also involves having the insight to see a problem clearly, even when the problem is you.

  • Jabeen Shazia Iqbal

    Wow.. So enlightening.. You make a day.!!