How to handle a character assassination at work

You can't control what others say, but you can be your best professional self

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Trent joined a new organization, with a great team and cool clients. His new team made him feel supported and like he belonged right away. 

One day, Trent was meeting with a trusted colleague, Andrea. After they finished their work, Andrea bluntly told Trent that another colleague, John, had been speaking poorly of him to other members of the team, including questioning his motives, work ethic and integrity. Andrea recited specific instances as proof, and assured Trent she had defended him.

Trent didn’t want to believe what he had heard. This character assassination – ‘the malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation’ – felt like it came out of nowhere and the realization that John had so little respect for him as person, for his work and for his reputation came crashing down.

Although Andrea shared that others were skeptical of what John had been saying, she suggested that Trent work to repair the damage that had been done: “Even if people take what John has said with a grain of salt, he has at a minimum planted the seed of doubt”.

Trent was at a total loss. How could he possibly work to repair the damage that had been done, without betraying Andrea’s trust? Trent wanted to address this with John directly, but couldn’t given the risk Andrea had taken in sharing with him. Trent consulted his Mentor about what to do, and here’s what she advised:

You can’t control what others say about you, but you can trust in the maturity of others

Trent’s mentor advised that he’ll never be able to control what others say, whether good or bad. Sometimes people slip up and say something they regret, and most people will let this go, not give it a second thought, and move on.

But sometimes people intentionally sabotage others. Most people with at least a little bit of experience and maturity know that a person who actively engages in a character assassination is usually trying to mask something else, usually about themselves. Most people can see through a person’s motives, so have faith that experienced professionals take the negative things other people say with a grain of salt.

Put it aside, and continue to be professional

Allowing the embarrassment and betrayal to shape how you do your work, the professionalism you bring every day and the relationships you build with others will only make things worse. Put it aside, continue to be professional – the exact reasons why you were hired in the first place – and build strong relationships with people who share your values. It will take time, but this will speak for itself.

Actively shift interactions

Trent had to continue working with John, so his Mentor advised that he should continue to be professional yet not engage beyond what is needed to get the work done. At first this felt a lot easier said than done. Trent had to actively alter how he interacted. But with time, he got used to the new way of working with John, which was still productive and got the job done. When John moved the conversation away from their work together, Trent simply listened, and then quickly moved the subject back.

Tip: This will be the hardest step, and easier with practice. Respond professionally and then shift the subject. For example:

  • “That sounds tough. By the way, client contacted me and would like to meet on Thursday. Are you free?”
  • “Interesting. Did you see the latest sales report? The numbers look good. Was wondering your thoughts for next month.”
  • If asked for opinion: “I’m not sure what I’d do. I meant to mention that we got some good feedback on our latest proposal. Alex shared that…”.

Own your part

Trent’s Mentor advised that although there is no excuse for a character assassination, he should reflect on what he may have done to contribute to the situation. Even well-meaning actions can have unintended consequences, so owning and identifying your part is the first step to ensuring it doesn’t happen again in the future – or at least the limit the possibility. It is of course possible that you did nothing to contribute, but important to honestly identify in case you did, and then actively avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Tip: For example, ask yourself: Did you get involved in situations that don’t concern you? Did you overshare? Could your intentions have been misinterpreted? Did you say something you shouldn’t have? Did you offend the person (intentionally or not)? Did you get caught up in politics? Did this really come out of nowhere? Did you ignore warning signs, or even warnings from others? Did you trust people too early?

Speak up for others

One of the things that stung Trent the most is that only one colleague had spoken up. He then recalled past situations where he could have stood up for others, but chose to stay silent. Trent learned from his mistakes and began speaking up for others when colleagues, friends or strangers bad-mouthed them, gossiped or took the conversation too far.

Closing the loop

Trent spent months being his best professional self, rebuilding his reputation, and re-calibrating his relationship with John and other colleagues. Although he continued to hear that John was bad-mouthing him, he felt confident that others gave John’s words little credibility, and focused his energy on building relationships with those who shared his values, contributing to the organization and building his resume. 

John eventually moved on from the organization, but Trent stayed on long-term and always remembered the valuable lessons that he learned. You can’t control what others say, but you can make an effort to be professional, shift interactions, own your part, and speak up for others going forward – after all, character assassins only continue if others don’t stop them in their tracks.  

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

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