Surviving the Office Demon

When your workplace “office demon” rears its ugly head, no need to call an exorcist. Try these tactics to overcome the evil that lurks…in the next cubicle.

By Karen Hazel, Esq.
Owner & Principal
Hazel Communications LLC


Kellie*, a 40-year old corporate vice president, has encountered the dark side of office politics over her nearly 20-year corporate career. She accepts most of it with professionalism and a touch of humor. However, it wasn’t until she began her new job at a major pharmaceuticals firm did she fully comprehend the meaning of the phrase “office demon.”

“The woman was like the devil,” she says, referring to a particular co-worker who clearly had a hidden agenda. “She blindsided me at meetings, in front of clients and my boss, tried to make me look incompetent, and lied through her teeth. Worst of all, not one person believed me when I tried to expose her or peg it as intentional career sabotage,” she laments. “She had seniority over me, and had been at the firm since forever,” she explains.

As the newcomer on the block, Kellie found herself in a situation so uncomfortable and stressful, she believed quitting was her only option. “I’ll take my chances on the job market, because I cannot allow that woman to ruin my health, and my reputation, any longer,” she said.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to Minneapolis-based career counselor Vicki Bacal, the situation is more common than many corporate managers care to admit. “I hear this problem from many clients, and often,” she admits. “Once the office demon marks you, you could be Mother Teresa, and you’re still out the door if the effort gains momentum and supporters,” says Bacal.

What’s a professional to do?

First, Bacal recommends gaining support right back. “If the demon is railroading you, he or she has likely done it to others,” she points out. “You aren’t likely their first victim.” One former communications manager-turned executive recruiter says she dug a bit deeper and discovered she was only one of a string of victims who fell prey to one particularly devious communications director. “I discovered the firm was again nearly sued because of this woman,” she says. “It enabled me to depersonalize the problem, and fully realize it was not about me, but about her emotional illness.”

This step is especially important, says Bacal, because “often, the victim begins to believe it is his or her own fault,” she says. She recommends finding support in other coworkers who recognize the problem, and connecting with past victims if possible. Another tip: Work on projects with an assigned partner, whenever possible. Why? The demon will be less likely to take on two co-workers at once in order to sabotage the effort.

 “Why Didn’t I See This Coming?”

While it may seem like it is your fault –“Why didn’t I see this coming?” wails one brokerage sales manager–remember that the issues and dysfunction lie with the perpetrator. “These are people who are incredibly frightened, insecure and feel deficient in one way or another,” says Bacal. “They often target those co-workers who are most visibly a threat, such as high achievers or well-liked individuals.”

Does this mean you can’t excel at your job? Certainly not, says Bacal, but once you believe you’ve pegged the demon at his or her game, it’s a good idea to document everything. For example, begin putting your project status reports up on a shared drive so others see your efforts and accomplishments. “That way, the demon’s claim that you’re not doing your job, or that you’re slacking off, is incongruous to your actual weekly job activity,” she says.

Another tactic: Call the demon on his or her behavior in front of others so there are witnesses. For example, if Demon Seed is trying to make you seem unprepared in front of peers, try confronting her on the spot. “You seem to be implying that I’m uninformed or ill prepared on this issue. I’m not seeing how your tactic is supporting our efforts to move this project forward or keep this meeting productive. What exactly are you trying to accomplish here?” If that doesn’t work, try: “Granted, I was not informed about the development you’re bringing up here. However, if you knew about this information, isn’t it then your responsibility to make sure that I, as project leader, knew about it?” And so on.

If you have appealed to your boss about the problem (or your boss’s boss, if your own boss happens to be the demon), and you’ve received no support or concrete recourse, seek support in your boss’s peers. “The last thing your manager wants to hear is that a problem she or he is unable or unwilling to solve has landed in the hands of a peer’s,” says Bacal. Be careful, however, as this tactic can backfire. However, if you’ve tried to appeal through the direct chain of command, many firms promote a “team” approach to management, which would permit this move as more acceptable.

Human Resources: Boon or Bane to the Victim?

On paper, your company’s HR department claims it’s there to solve problems and resolve interpersonal disputes. However, most everyone knows that the HR department is called to represent and defend the company’s position. Instead of running to your department’s assigned HR representative, talk to a lawyer. “You do have rights in these situations,” says Bacal, although each situation will have different options. Pursue your case with an attorney, and choose one who specializes in wrongful termination and other workplace issues. Ask to arrange a consultation, which many attorneys offer free of charge or for a nominal fee.

“Human resources representatives will often do whatever it takes to take the focus off the demon’s behavior, and put it on you,” says Bacal. In one example, Bacal says one human resources rep advised the demon’s target to “focus on your work, then you might not be so preoccupied with other people’s behavior.”

If quitting is the only solution you’re comfortable with, you can stop the demon from exacting more damage on your career. Upon your exit, present a letter from an attorney clearly stating the reasons you’re quitting, and name names. “This can help stop the demon from bad-mouthing or giving negative feedback if someone calls for a reference,” says Bacal.

Make Lemonade

When a situation presents no viable solution (that you can live with), consider the old adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Explore any and all opportunities to turn bad into good. Is a career change possible? Can you redirect your role in the same industry and thereby leverage at least part of your past experience? Call every possible business contact you have, and tell each you’re ready for something fresh and new. “Leave the venom behind, and move onto something positive,” recommends Bacal.

Here’s an idea: One particularly savvy communications professional triumphed over her office demon by getting even through success: She opened her own business. Before long, she was grossing twice what she was paid under her demonic ex-boss.

*not her real name.

© 2012 Hazel Communications LLC. This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended as career or legal advice, or counseling on either employment or legal matters. This article may not be reprinted or repurposed without express permission by Hazel Communications.