What to Do When Your Employee Becomes Your Enemy

You hired someone to play full-out and be part of your winning team. Somewhere along the way, things changed. He stopped coming in with a latte just to check in and talk sports scores like he used to. Now, when you walk down the hall and he’s there with someone else, the conversation comes to a halt.

You do what you know to do as a leader: You call him in to have a talk. It’s a vanilla discussion, rather bland and nondescript. Yet, there’s that itch you cannot scratch.

Betrayal is often invisible.

He still smiles and is superficially friendly. Yet you know something is wrong and there are “mosquitoes in this paradise.”

Then you see others are no longer looking at you directly. They give you short answers and cannot wait to find an excuse to leave your office.

Often, when a friend turns to an enemy, it’s like water torture, one slow drop at a time. And suddenly you have a major issue. You know you have an issue because Human Resources comes knocking on your door.

This old friend now has a formal complaint against you for harassment, and HR informs you there will have to be an investigation–it’s part of company policy.

What is especially crazy is that this is your company. You built it with your own sweat equity. And yet, procedures are to be followed.

You are told that during the investigation, it’s business as usual. “How,” you ask, “can we have business as usual while I am standing here with a knife in my back?”

You are told to just deal with it.

Your mind wanders back to an English class in college and you remember those fateful words Shakespeare wrote for Julius Caesar to pronounce to his friend Marcus Brutus at the moment of his assassination,

“Et tu, Brute?”

This signifies the utmost betrayal, especially of a friend.

And then you remember why those words have stayed with you all these years. And you feel better. The phrase can also mean “your turn next,” or “to hell with you, too.”

Great, now you know you are not the only one who has ever had a frenemy. And you are still alive, so maybe you can do something about it.

Call it damage control.

While you are supposed to do business as usual, that’s really impossible. So you have some choices. There is an old saying: “Never go to bed angry, stay up and plot your revenge.” Or, you can take some sick days, go on a vacation, or make sure you have lots of business deals to do out-of-town. You can also come into the office super early and stay extra late so you don’t have to see this old buddy turncoat.

Or you can see this time as a research project. Here is what you can do:

  1. Make sure you sit next to or directly across from him at meetings (this is a way to take on the issue face first).
  2. Smile (this is called “fake it till you make it”).
  3. Call him by name (this is disarming).
  4. Make sure you include him on emails (no retaliation).
  5. Invite some folks to celebrate (you can always find something) and make sure he is close to the top of the list (not first or ever last).
  6. Kill with kindness (there are absolute neurological reasons why kindness sets up a positive action-reaction).

And then just wait!

If you have not done anything worthy of an HR intervention, you’ll soon know it. Then get ready for some real-time talk to get to the heart of the issue. Often (not always) the relationship can be salvaged. Think of it this way: If you break an arm or a leg, the area heals and is stronger than it was before.

And if there is no way to reinvent the relationship, you can walk away knowing your integrity is intact. Even though it would feel so good to get even, leadership means getting ahead!


Originally published at Inc