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Recovering from a Ruined Reputation

Dear Emily,

I am the victim of a character assassination at work. I have been at my current workplace for ten years. A new colleague seems to be jealous of my successes and has started spreading stories, gossip, and rumors, stating that I am a difficult colleague to work with. At work, I am direct in my comments, and as a woman, I am judged more harshly by speaking up. The gossip, rumors, and slander are ruining my reputation and damaging my career. Despite team coaching, the behavior and the storytelling has not stopped. Unfortunately, many people are starting to believe the stories that are being told. There are members of my organization that believe in me, and have acknowledged that the issue is my colleague and her misrepresentation of who I am. There is an opportunity for me to address this in a public forum—an organization-wide meeting. Is confronting this issue publicly a brave move or a suicide mission?

Reputation on Life Support

Dear Reputation on Life Support,

I can hear the frustration in your question. What a tough situation to be in! You work hard, have dedicated ten years to an organization, and now your reputation is being harmed. Reading between the lines, I am guessing that you feel like you have done everything you can and now you are looking for validation that the “nuclear” option is the right way to go. Addressing the issue in a public forum is a big, big step to take. So, before we go there, let’s back up and see if there aren’t other, smaller steps that you could take to move toward what you really want.

First, have you had a conversation with this person directly? You mention team coaching but I don’t see anything that says you have talked to this person, identified the behavior, and requested that it stop. Assuming you have not done that, this is the first and best place to start.

A few things to consider as you hold the conversation:

Unbundle with CPR. As with every conversation, you want to consider whether this is a content, pattern, or relationship issue. Clearly, not a content issue here as you report this has been going on for some time. And, since it seems clear that this is impacting both your relationship with this person and your relationship with others, I would say you are also past the pattern conversation. You need to hold a relationship conversation.

Describe the Gap. This straightforward step is often one of the hardest to do because you have to get really clear on your expectations and on the specific, factual observations. Begin by sharing your expectations. You might start by saying, “I have worked here for ten years and have always valued the professional, respectful behavior of my colleagues. Respect for others has been, in my experience, an unwritten rule around here.” Then, share your observations of this person’s behavior. Be as factual as possible. This might sound like, “I have heard from a few people that they have heard you say things about me that seem disrespectful. For example….” Now, because you haven’t heard this directly, you want to make sure that you don’t overstate. Be careful to clarify this: “I haven’t heard any of this directly so I am not sure what you actually said.” Then invite the other person into the dialogue with a question: “Can you help me understand?”

Opening up with a question allows for the other person to agree with the gap you have described or share her differing perspective. Either way, it gets the conversation started.

Take Small Steps in the Conversation. Especially when an issue has built up over time, it can be easy to jump right into the conversation and try to resolve everything at once. That can be overwhelming and lead us to be overly forceful. Instead, consider this a series of conversations, each with a discrete, small goal. For example, your goal for this first conversation may simply be to see if the other person will acknowledge what she has said to others about you. Your next step or objective might be to have a conversation about whether she sees her remarks as disparaging or not, whether her remarks align with the standards of respect you have in your organization. At each step, your goal should be to understand the other person’s perspective, not to change the other person’s behavior.

Wait, really? If at this point you are thinking I am totally off my rocker, then good for you. This means you actually are paying attention because yes, I really did just say that your goal should NOT be to change the other person’s behavior. If you enter a conversation with that goal, it will come through and it will promote resistance and defensiveness. Though this may seem counterintuitive, if you really want to change someone’s behavior, if you really want to be in a position to influence someone’s behavior, you have to start by letting go of that goal and instead focusing on understanding the other person’s behavior and his or her perspective of that behavior.

Next, let’s assume that you have held the conversation and the behavior continues. What do you do now? Is it time for the nuclear option yet?

While you can always jump right to public shaming, you still have a couple of steps left in your escalation path you may want to consider. For example, try having the conversation in the presence of a neutral third party who you both respect. Having someone listen in and coach through a difficult conversation will help you both be on your best behavior. If that doesn’t work, consider talking to your HR representative. This accomplishes a couple of objectives. First, you will probably get some good advice on how to handle the situation. Second, it will give you a chance to formally document the situation.

So, now is it time for public shaming? Nope. It’s not and that’s because it should never be time for public shaming. Holding crucial conversations in a public forum can be effective and appropriate when the issue is something that is impacting multiple people or when you need the collective wisdom of the group to solve a problem or come to agreement. Public crucial conversations are almost never effective when your goal is to use the tide of public opinion to shame someone into change, which I fear may be your underlying motive. While an “intervention” may have a place in a therapeutic setting, it doesn’t belong in a respectful workplace.

Good Luck,

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19 thoughts on “Recovering from a Ruined Reputation”

  1. The Noble Savage

    Once more, we see in the solutioning a supposition that the disparaging party will own their comments and will be prepared to have a dignified discussion regarding why they spread negative remarks about an individual. I can only speak from my own experience that I’ve never once actually seen this take place in a workplace setting without a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of an email capturing the remarks or a 3rd party corroborating the remarks (and even then semantics are quickly called into question). The idea of going to Human Resources seeking remedy always makes me grin in situations like this with no real proof that anything outside of policy has actually taken place. In fact, in my experience, its more often the one who goes to HR in a ‘He Said / She Said’ situation who is stigmatized rather than the alleged offender. HR is in the business of protecting the company from litigation, not officiating personality conflicts. More than likely they’d respond with obvious guidance such as “Have you talked to them directly?…” and “Have you notified your supervisor?”, etc – and then leave a note in your file regarding an ‘incident’ which you’ll then have to explain during your next six performance reviews.

    1. Chris

      Very true. (Great article by the way.) I would simply add that the only way to “control” how others see you is to ensure their experience of you is positive. Be the person who has earned the respect of others and avoid stooping down to a lower level of behavior. Retaliation is not getting you anywhere and might even cause others to question your ability to resolve conflict with others. If you want to take it one step further, ask yourself why the other person would want to risk her own reputation by spreading falsehoods about you. What’s in it for her? What is her motivation and reward with this behavior?

      1. Chinashop

        I have noticed that when you are dealing with a narcissistic bully he or she will NEVER be prepared to acknowledge that there is anything they have done wrong and is never prepared to change anything. Others kowtow to them and they simply become “the bull in the china shop” – destroying relationships, making workplaces or social situations toxic.

        When I finally did stand up to a bully after trying all the sensible ways of dealing with it – offering mediation, offering to talk, trying to do placatory things – all of which just meant there was more bullying. I finally after years and years of this just laid it all on the line, described his behaviour to him and simply said this was clearly adult bullying. He began to kowtow to me!! It was however necessary to advise others of what was going on and I was encouraged by a counsellor to do this. This of course led to accusations of gossip and to how I was accosting him!

    2. Gladys

      Sad but true. I’ve had the same experiences. But I still try to talk to the person first if at all possible. The public shaming is like a nuclear bomb if you’re close enough to see the effect on the victim you’re probably gonna suffer from the blast too.

      1. hannah mockford

        every one iv ever trusted has lied about me, yes i am a victim of crime because of it. I have been trying to clear my name for as long as i can remeber. All my mates have forgotten about me, and iv been caught up in nasty scams to. iv lost everything . 20 years no personal post, no one to celibrate things with, just nasty letters inaproaprate so called friends, threatning texts. I havent had a career or job in years.

    3. RisingFromTheDust


      I lost my job as well as my reputation after taking the measures recommended, including HR. That’s what nailed the coffin closed.

      A horrific and devastating experience. I’m still trying to recover. My career tanked, and with it, my income and future prospects. My resume has become a bomb. There are no good references; the poison was spread to every department.

      I should have followed the lead of my boss (who cherry picked me for the plum position I was perfectly qualified for) when she suddenly left. Naive me.

      Never again.

      Murderers – it’s called “character assassination” for a very good reason – are alive and well in the corporate world and, as understandably, other employees became as profoundly blind, deaf and mute as they could. No one wants someone else’s blood spattered on them when they are around bloodthirsty predators (or stupid chickens who, once one starts the process, will peck another chicken to its death, just because).

  2. Cindy Faria

    Your post could have been written by me except that only one or two people believe the lies. People who have made an effort to get to know me (the most important people) don’t believe the lies.

    I didn’t write the post.

    Thank you for the excellent advice! I is so easy to fall into a defensive position when you are under attack. The key is controlling your emotions and thinking clearly about consequences. This won’t ruin my reputation because my reputation is too well grounded in the minds of the most important people.

    Thanks again. I hope this is helpful to others undergoing this type of organizational sabatage.

  3. Nita Z

    Excellent article! So practical and insightful on so many levels. Setting a goal to change someone else’s behavior leads to trouble and, even when we know better, we still drift into doing it by default when their behavior annoys us sufficiently. This was timely for me. I was about to do just that.

  4. Jordan Snedaker

    Love the point about genuinely trying to understand the other persons perspective and not trying to change their behavior. The other person will be able to see your intentions coming through loud and clear. I have seen others skip the critical conversation and go directly to public shaming. The result is an even greater divide between the two people, everyone in the office starts taking sides and office engagement declines. Great insights Emily!

  5. Susan Jones

    I believe in todays work climate this happens more than we know. I have a similar situation. I tried confronting the person, and discussing the situation. I stated the facts and truths, but she continued spreading lies. I completed step back from the gossip and lies and let the person that was doing the talking dig her own hole. She did, and truth came out, but it did a few months. During that timeI learned not to comment on what was being said. I stayed true to myself, and let my actions and my work define me. As I did this I felt more empowered, and happy.

  6. Julinda

    Reading the letter from “Reputation on Life Support” I didn’t think she intended to publicly shame the person who was talking about her. Maybe (as I assumed when I read it) she intended to address the group and say something like, “I know some of you may have heard some things about me. [possibly sharing details] I want you all to know, these are not true. I am still the dedicated person who has worked with you for 10 years.”

  7. Patti

    So, what do you do when the person ruining your reputation is the vice president and leader of your whole department? I believe that the outside partners whose work I support, my co-workers, and even my immediate supervisor all think very highly of me, and my performance reviews are always good, but for some reason the person in charge has put me on the “bad” list — quite unfairly, I believe — and even those who disagree with her are afraid to stand up for me. Most recently, she objected to something I did, which somehow turned into a rumor that eventually got back to me full of misinformation that made it look much worse than it actually was. My supervisor, puzzled, said, “No one should even know about that but her and me.” Uh-huh. Is the answer for me to set up a Crucial Conversation with HER? Eek!

  8. KS

    I am going through the same thing, only the person doing the character assassination is my new boss. Two of my long-time colleagues seem to be aligning with her, even though they’ve known me for years. I’m insulted and, frankly, hurt, that this is happening.

    Emily, I read your response with care and great appreciation. Her way of responding to me is so agitated that I believe I need to go to HR sooner rather than later.

    1. Chris

      I have just been liberated from the same scenario. After 1 1/2 years of being oppressed by a new manager, I have finally found a way out. Once again I’m able to breathe and make a meaningful contribution to my organization. I just wish I had done it sooner. Waiting for things to improve has cost me in reputation, physical and emotional health. I’m back in the clear and sailing ahead in clearer waters.

    2. Denice Sears

      Sadly, long-time colleagues or even friends will side with the individual they believe will “benefit” them.

  9. Eric

    A very well written article. Is this problem/solution gender specific because I have only ever seen or heard of this happen to women? I did have a guy say lies about me at my first job out of college. I never bad mouthed him or even spoke a word to him, I simply outworked him and did it with a contagious smile on my face. People like him salivate when you show weakness and I think striking that conversation shows weakness. This is from a mans perspective so it may not apply to women. Rationalizing with someone who is spreading rumors and lies seems like a no win situation to me. I would suggest digging deep and work like she can’t hurt you, no matter what she says.

  10. SAS

    Thanks for this article. I was forced to relocate by my employer. They gave the impression I was thought of highly, but as I was moving, my now boss’s boss gave me the worst annual review in my entire career. My newly hired immediate boss thinks very highly of me, but despite that, I’m feel jilted that I went through the hardship of the move without people thinking highly of me. The language about expectations had me thinking of a nice way to verbalize it if I want to publicly shame this person to change them. But the second part was more telling: that I should let go of the goal of changing her and understand her perspective perhaps.

  11. Dee

    I have experienced “recovering from a ruined reputation” as well with considerably more time with the organization. Many people I had worked closely with for years easily believed what the new employee said about my behaviors. Sadly, while I could sense that some working relationships had changed, I did not find out why until several years after the new person left, so had no opportunity to talk to this new person. It did cost me promotions as well as job opportunities with employers we did business with.

    As a result, when someone discusses with me a behavior of an employee I have known a long time, I will respond with something like, “Really or Are you sure?” “That behavior just does not seem to fit her/him. There have been times when my perceptions of behaviors, things said, or decisions made have been wrong.” The ones trying to ruin someone’s reputation for their gain did not know how to reply to me, so I waited. Those who were not trying to be vicious but were erring by sharing, went on to err further by telling me more information about the situation. After listening I asked if they had tried looking for information contrary to their perception of what took place and if they still believed their perception was correct to respectfully talk to the individual about it.

    When they discuss behaviors of an employee that I do not know, I will respond similarly and add : “I really do not know him/her, are you sure? There have been times when my perceptions… Have you thought of looking for information contrary to your belief? If you cannot find any you may want to respectfully talk to the individual about it.”

    You cannot change peoples personalities or behaviors but you can control how you respond and avoid participating in character slander. Eventually people like that will “self-destruct” but they can do a lot of damage to others’ reputations before that happens.

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