Gossip, Backstabbing: 10 Commandments of Dealing with Problem Colleagues

Gossip, Backstabbing: 10 Commandments of Dealing with Problem Colleagues

The overwhelming majority of colleagues in the teaching profession are supportive of each other, going above and beyond in helping each other with the endless bureaucracy of education and its paperwork as well as mentoring each other with curriculum, instruction, and assessment matters.

There are those trouble making colleagues, however, as with any profession, who seem to thrive on obstructing one’s effectiveness as an instructor and damaging professional relationships. This behavior is probably the result of personal insecurity as well as professional instability. Particularly in times when the general economic climate is poor or the individual worksite is going through turmoil or change, some insecure professionals at the site may feel the need to establish a pecking order and their place within it to secure their position. These particular colleagues can be difficult to deal with because of their lack of respect and aggressiveness, but there are ways to address the problem behavior.

5 Types of Problem Behavior in Colleagues

  1. The first step in addressing a problem is generally in identifying it. Below is a discussion of the different types of common problem behavior found in faculty.

  2. 1

    Lack of Respect for Boundaries

    Disrespect of personal boundaries is usually a starting point in problem behavior, a “red flag” that the behavior will continue if it isn’t stopped. Examples are unwelcome touching (not necessarily sexual, such as wiping invisible “dirt” off your shirt), barging into your classroom when you are teaching, interrupting at faculty meetings, and general lack of respect for personal and professional space.

    One such violation means little; added up they mean a lot and can chip away at personal and professional self-esteem.

  3. 2


    The next level of problem professional behavior is gossiping. With teachers this can often be related to perceptions of what is, or is not, going on in the individual teacher’s class and the “kind” of teacher she is.

  4. 3


    Another boundaries violation involves control: control of one’s time, space, and resources. Some examples might be continued attempts to bait you into unwanted discussions, change your classroom to a less favored one, and “borrowing” class materials without permission.

  5. 4


    Sometimes, not often, the problem behavior escalates into actual sabotage. Methods by the offending party might include are the efforts to damage your personal reputation and/or performance, through such behavior as gossiping and saying negative things to students about your classes.

  6. 5


    Bullying can include orders and demands that the individual making them has no place giving, such as where and when your class should meet and what you should teach students.

10 Commandments of Dealing with Problem Colleagues

  1. 1

    Be a Role Model. Don’t Backstab, Gossip, Control, Bully, or Violate Boundaries

    The first step in addressing problem behavior is professional behavior of your own. Keep a polite and professional distance from the bully.

  2. 2

    Establish a Network of Supportive Colleagues

    Establishing a professional network can be helpful—people you support and who will support you.

  3. 3

    Friendliness. Attempt to Win over the Bully

    It may be difficult, but be as friendly and helpful as possible to the problem individual. At minimum, even if friendliness doesn’t win her over, she will have less to complain about to others if you are unfailingly polite.

  4. 4


    Refuse to engage the problem colleague at his or her level. Just ignore him, as your mother might have said. This does send a message that the behavior is too petty for you to trouble with. This is called an “extinguishing” strategy: if the colleague gets no reinforcement for his or her behavior, he will often cease and desist.

  5. 5

    Call out Behavior. Avoid Personal Attacks

    Confrontation finally may be needed. Avoid personal attacks. Stay focused on the behavior, and don’t let the offending party change the subject or sidetrack the issue.

  6. 6

    Set Limits

    Set limits about what behavior is and isn’t acceptable. Discuss consequences of further negative behavior, such as speaking to the dean or chair of the department.

  7. 7


    Attempt to engage the offending colleague in dialogue, your position in the matter, and how destructive behavior is not in anyone’s best interest.

  8. 8

    Emails. Keep Running Record

    It may be helpful to get the dialogue in writing. Ask the problem colleague to email you his or her concerns. However, often the problem colleague initiates an email dialogue and copies a series of colleagues, both peers and superiors, in a further effort to establish control, and often apparently ignorant of the inappropriateness. I always keep such a dialogue open, “copying all” in my responses—having opened the dialogue to the public, the colleague will have to keep it there. The tactic usually can backfire as his or her inappropriate behavior is exposed. And it is in writing!

  9. 9

    Keep the Dialogue Brief and to the Point

    Stay focused on the problem behavior you want changed: colleague’s constant invasiveness of your classroom, for example. Don’t let the conversation trail off into a discussion of how long the colleague has or has not been at the school site, etc. Be a broken record on the behavior you want to see changed if necessary.

  10. q

    Involve Higher Authorities

    Finally, involving higher-ups may be the last resort. This usually will come after the “copy all” caper. You now have a running record of the behavior. Indeed, a higher up may approach you first on the concern.

Addressing problem behavior in colleagues can be very difficult as they are usually difficult individuals with severe problems, both professionally and personally, acting out of hurt and insecurity. However, with persistence, you can establish boundaries and the message they will not enact their hurt on you.

What are some difficult work types you have encountered, and how to you deal with them?

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