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Undermined by a work colleague who was a friend

Published: August 11, 2011 | Last Updated: July 29, 2013 By | 11 Replies Continue Reading
Friendships carry risks when they unravel and this is particularly true in the workplace. Yet, we spend so much of our lives at work that it’s natural we would develop close friendships there.


Hello Irene,

I know that you have addressed work friendships in the past, but I am wondering if you can address the issue of friendships between women who are at different levels of the work hierarchy.

I became friendly with an employee who was hired to report to me. She had no background in our field and I had a long educational and professional background so part of my job was to provide on the job training for her. We would see each other socially and I would give her a very nice Christmas gift each year. Over the years, I felt she was slipping in some of her work effort due to our friendship, but when I would bring up issues in what I felt was a constructive way, she would blow it off and in my opinion used the friendship to get out of doing things, leaving me to cover for her.

I told my supervisor that I was having this issue, and was told to keep working on it for the good of the department, but my supervisor did not intervene. Things came to a head recently when my friend went to my supervisor and said that she was too busy to do the items on her job description, and the supervisor said that I would need to take over that part of the job. I hold a terminal degree in my field and those particular duties are not related to the job I hold at this firm. She then said if I did not want to do the duties I would be replaced. (I should
mention that during this time that as our friendship cooled, my supervisor and
the employee who reports to me became close friends.)

Is this situation salvageable?  What can I do to avoid this sort of mess next time around?

Signed, Julie


Hi Julie,

I don’t think you did anything particularly wrong—except, perhaps, to misjudge your friend’s character. She turned out to be an irresponsible and disloyal employee who took advantage of your friendship. In hindsight, you recognize that this pattern was building up over time. You
probably should have stepped back from the friendship sooner and had some frank discussions with her — if you saw it interfering with your ability to supervise and accomplish your job.

It was wrong of your friend to do an end run and go over your head. It doesn’t sound like your supervisor handled this well either; she was probably manipulated by this once-friend as you
were. While the friendship isn’t salvageable, you need to do what you can to make your job situation more tenable.

Your supervisor’s actions have made it virtually impossible for you to supervise your friend any more and have diminished your role in the organization. This sequence of events has to be upsetting, especially in a  depressed job market when it is so difficult to make career changes. Is there a human resources office with someone to whom you can speak, in confidence, who might be able to mediate this situation or give you advice? Is your organization large enough so that there might be some mobility within it that would allow you to work for a different supervisor or in a different unit?

Try to stay calm and cool in the office during this very stressful period as you focus on making the best of your job. Make sure you keep your life is in balance, too, and carve out time to spend with more trustworthy friends outside of the office.

Hope this helps.

My best, Irene

Other posts on friendships at work on The Friendship Blog that may be relevant:

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Category: Workplace friendships

Comments (11)

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  1. EagleWings says:

    Anonymous, I think the other Anonymous poster below my post left you a good reply.

    It could depend on the type of person your friend is.

    If she has always more or less been a mean, selfish, grumpy, manipulative, or careless person, she was just acting out of her usual negative disposition, I suppose.

    Maybe people like that feel “entitled” to your nice gestures and never feel the need to give back.

    Sometimes in relationships, one person grows more attached than the other does, so there’s an unbalance there. Maybe she never felt as strongly about the friendship as you did?

    If there is even an ounce of compassion or decency in her, when you mentioned to her, “But why would you treat me like this after all the nice things I’ve done for you?,” it probably made her feel guilty.

    When people feel guilty and know they have done wrong, they usually get angry and defensive, and choose to lash out instead of apologize or admit they were wrong.

    I know I keep repeating this in posts at this site (and I apologize), but since I’ve recently come to realize my mother (who was a huge influence on me) was very codependent, it’s opened my eyes to a lot of things. She raised me to be codependent, too.

    If you have never heard the terms “codependency” or “people pleasing” before, here is a link (which will open in a new browser window) of a list of common traits of those conditions:

    52 Traits of a Chronic People Pleaser

    (I don’t know the lady at that site, I just found that page a couple of months ago and recognized myself -and my mom- in most of the traits on the page.)

    I don’t know if you are codependent or not, but if you are, you need to examine your motives for why you do nice things for other people.

    If you do nice things truly because you want to help someone else, that is fine.

    But a lot of people have such low self worth and such a tendency to “people please”, they believe they must do nice things for other people, or else nobody will want to be their friends, spend time with them, or do nice gestures for them in return.

    They fear being alone or being rejected, so they bend over backwards to perform for people.

    I’d also add that even if you keep giving and giving to someone because you sincerely want to do it, if you notice your friend is not giving as much in return, IMHO, that could be a sign of trouble.

    If you are codependent (and I have no idea if you are or not), it’s possible you were giving to this friend all the time, way more than she was giving you, and it was a lop sided friendship.

    Without knowing you or your friend and more details, it’s kind of hard for me to say why she behaved the way she did.

    It’s perfectly normal to want to know the “why’s” in life when something goes wrong, but I think at the end, it’s futile and a waste of our energy.

    I don’t think any of us will ever fully understand why other people do what they do.

    Wanting to know ‘why’ something bad happened to you, whether it was a friend who dumped you or whatever it was, and refusing to let go until you get the answer, means you’re going to remain stuck in the past and in the pain instead of living life and enjoying the here and now.

    I linked to a really good article that touches on this a few days ago,

    “Why It Doesn’t Matter Why He Broke Up With You”.

    It’s about dating, but I think it can also apply to the demise of platonic female friendships.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I figure the ex-friend made that remark to rationalize away her guilt or sense of obligation. If she didn’t ask for the nice things, then she doesn’t owe you nice things, which makes it “OK”. But really she just isn’t very nice and doesn’t want to do nice things. Boo.

  3. Anonymous says:

    EagleWings in your statement:

    ( I do personally think if you do kind gestures for other people, they should treat you that way in return, but often times, that isn’t so. There seem to be more ‘users’ (or ‘takers’) out there than other ‘givers,’ in personal relationships and in the workplace.)

    When my longtime friendship ended one of the things she said to me was I didn’t ask you to do the nice things you did for me. That statement was a big kick in the gut to me because I did the nice things because I was her friend and I am a nice person. She said the comment with a lot of anger and I just couldn’t understand where it came from. I still don’t understand, why would you say something like this and treat a friend terrible who is treating you nicely. Any insight on this comment?

  4. EagleWings says:

    I am glad if you found my post helpful.

    I hope I didn’t sound “preachy” or anything like that, but I was in a similar situation years ago and read a ton of books about it, so I learned a few things. I thought I could share what I learned if it could help you or others.

    You said,

    But she saw an opportunity and she took it. I learned my lesson to keep work and home separate so I think I will have to go to a new situation just to establish this knowledge with the new people

    It sounds like you were certainly doing the right things, but I wonder if you had (I got this expression from a writer on another site) put on your “emotional kevlar vest” too?

    I mean, it’s one thing to do what you know is right, but if in your heart (or emotionally), you were expecting or hoping these ladies at your job (who you’ve known for ages, who you’ve done so many nice things for), to treat you kindly in return, that is another thing.

    I do personally think if you do kind gestures for other people, they should treat you that way in return, but often times, that isn’t so. There seem to be more ‘users’ (or ‘takers’) out there than other ‘givers,’ in personal relationships and in the workplace.

    You said,

    What on earth do I say in interviews? “Looking for a new challenge” seems ridiculous because it will probably be the exact same job if I am offered one.

    I really wish I had some input for you there, but I don’t know what to say. Maybe the other ladies here can give you some great advice on that.

    I had to quit my full time job to take care of my mother (who was diagnosed with cancer and other health problems), plus I had to quit also because I couldn’t endure the harassment of the one mean boss, which I put up with for a few years. (I’ve done some freelancing in the past few years since quitting).

    I’m sure if you do a web search for it, you could find any number of career advice pages which can tell you things to say during an interview.

    The only thing I can think of off the top of my head is to tell people in an interview that you didn’t see a chance of advancement at your current/old place of employment?

  5. EagleWings says:

    I tried to edit mistakes in my above post (“native” should have read “naive” – as in gulliable), but I’m getting an error message saying ‘Access is denied, you don’t have permission to do that.’

    I at first hit the “preview” button when I got that message, then tried the back button and the then the “post” button, but kept getting the same error message.

    Now the “edit” link no longer even appears on that post, so I cannot fix the typing errors in it. :o(

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank you again. Unfortunately, I guess we have to learn that people will stab you in the back. I did a lot of personal favors for her over the years. But she saw an opportunity and she took it. I learned my lesson to keep work and home separate so I think I will have to go to a new situation just to establish this knowledge with the new people because I really don’t know how to turn this around otherwise (I will have to move and take a hit on my house, though). Meanwhile I go to work everyday and keep my mouth shut despite rumors I have overheard about myself that are untrue. What on earth do I say in interviews? “Looking for a new challenge” seems ridiculous because it will probably be the exact same job if I am offered one.

  7. EagleWings says:

    I’m so sorry for the stress, betrayal and hurt you received at your job.

    After I was harassed by one boss, I read a mountain of books about workplace abuse and politics, and they all say when you’re in such a situation, the only options, really, are to quit and get a job someplace else
    (or possibly get transferred to another department at the same job).

    One book said you can try to nip abusive behavior in the bud early on, that this is your only glimmer of hope, because if you do not, it will escalate.

    By the time the mistreatment escalates, it’s too late (HR won’t protect you).

    (These books say if you catch the abuse early on and stand up to the bully, that the bully realizes you are not an “easy push over” and will usually seek a new victim.)

    Other than that, I didn’t see much advice on how to get a bully to stop bullying / harassing / discriminating/ playing favorites. The books say HR usually sides with bullies.

    You said,

    The commenter who said “there are no real friends at work” is unfortunately right, but people do make alliances and not making friends can keep you out of the loop, too, so it is hard to figure out where to draw the line.

    You can certainly be friendly and nice to people on your job (e.g., go to lunches with them; take a mild interest in their personal lives by asking them occasional questions about their pet dog, etc).

    I did not mean to say you should be “stand offish” and ignore co workers or blow them off.

    What I was trying to say is that your workplace “friendships” have to be kept shallow and superficial (this is for your own emotional and career safety).

    I learned from first hand experience (and later by reading books about it), that to expect anything deeper than that is going to create problems in your career and you’re going to wind up disappointed…

    Because most of the people you work with, even if they seem like ‘friends,’ are really at the end of the day, just co workers there to get their pay checks.

    Your co workers, bosses, and subordinates will always choose their pay check and job security over you.

    They’re not really friends in the traditional sense who will stand by you and back you up no matter what. They’re primarily interested in their own welfare.

    Edit. I wanted to add…

    One book I read for women pointed out that workplaces are very competitive, and that men recognize this fact.

    However, but it’s a reality that most females either do not realize (they think the job is all about making friends, it’s one big family setting, or being about supportive of others),

    or they, on one level,realize it but deny it because most women are not comfortable with cut throat competition, so they pretend workplaces are not competitive.

    From what I read, I gather it’s healthier and wiser for women to realize, acknowledge, and embrace that the workplace is competitive – and then compete.

    Not that you have to be paranoid, nasty, and a backstabber to get ahead at work, but you don’t have to be passive and allow others to take advantage of you, either.

    It also opens your eyes to the fact that some people on the job are backstabbers who play dirty office politics.

    I was rather native when I started my office job, I did not realize at first that other adults bully in an office setting.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I am the original writer of the letter. Thank you very much for all the comments. Unfortunately, once this former friend realized that she could get away with whatever she likes, this became a pretty hostile work environment for me. She has long personal conversations all day within earshot of where I am working on projects she has decided I am going to do for her. Talking to her best buddy will get me nowhere. The sad thing is, I am one of the people who started when this company was founded a while back and took a chance on an unknown when the economy was good and no one else was interested. I am the last standing of my original group of workers – maybe I should have taken the hint and left sooner? It is disappointing that I grew my division into what it is today and am getting treated badly, but oh well. I appreciate the support and have started looking elsewhere. The commenter who said “there are no real friends at work” is unfortunately right, but people do make alliances and not making friends can keep you out of the loop, too, so it is hard to figure out where to draw the line.

  9. Liz says:

    What I think is very telling here is that the exfriend is now friends w/supervisor. Obviously this is a manipulative situation & I’d advise you to say nothing & do your job (including the extra work) for a while so that you can have time to observe what goes on. And, don’t discuss this situation, but start to nose around quietly whether you can transfer or change this. I saved my job one time by making sure that there was sugar for the vice pres. of the company. No joke!
    Time is on your side here, and if I were you I’d kiss up to that supervisor just a bit. She must be lonley to be so quick to befriend that woman.

  10. EagleWings says:

    margarets said:
    HR exists to serve the company, not employees. They may put up a facade of trying to help you but you should know that they will run straight to your boss with whatever you tell them.

    Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely true and correct!!

    After I was harassed at one office job, I read a big stack of books on the topic of job harassment and job bullying by experts, and they all said what you just did.

    I read that in many cases, Human Resources Departments will side with the boss over the abused employee (even if they realize you were truly harassed) because they’re afraid of lawsuits, so they will protect the bully boss so as to avoid responsibility and damages.

    I read in many books that even bosses with many, many grievances filed against them over the years by many different employees will remain protected by HR.

    These are clearly “bad apples” who should be fired, but many workplaces refuse to get rid of them.

    It’s also, based on what I read, most organization’s HR policy to immediately talk to the person you went to them complaining about, so they can just inform the person of it, and get their side of the story.

    This can make the abuse get worse if the boss decides to retaliate against you for “ratting” on him or her to HR.

    Also, the abusive boss I had at my prior office job, even though numerous people filed both informal (verbal) and formal complaints against her (I myself did not do so), the organization did next to nothing about it, except make her take a three day “sensitivity” course.

    She still works there to this day, years later.

    (This former boss was not only abusive, she was also highly incompetent. Some of us quit the job because of her.

    I can’t figure out why workplaces insist on holding on to ineffective, nasty people like her who drive away the good (competent and nice) workers.)

    It’s also very sad, frustrating, and a lonely feeling when you realize people who you thought were your friends on the job desert you after the abuse starts, because they’re afraid of becoming the next victim.

  11. margarets says:

    HR exists to serve the company, not employees. They may put up a facade of trying to help you but youshould know that they will run straight to your boss with whatever you tell them.

    Is this situation salvageable? Well, the friendship is over after that backstabbing, so feel free to toss it aside. In the short term I think your best bet is to do these other duties and play along so as to seem cooperative and a team player and all that. In the longer term, do you plan on staying with the company anyway? If you do, you’ll have to strategize re: how to dump these extra duties on another employee and how to subtly show up this slack ex-friend co-worker. I know – it’s awful to be a conniving backstabber when it goes against your nature but that is the reality of today’s workplace.

    As for next time, don’t trust work friends too much obviously, but there’s no way to avoid having a co-worker go behind your back (happens in every workplace). The best you can do is watch the signs and try to pre-empt the backstabber by running to the boss or whoever first. In other words, play nasty like they do.

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