Toxic Ex-Coworker at New Job!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about going to a new job where a past enemy is employed.

I was in a very toxic work environment for about two years, so much that I started seeing a therapist and taking short-term medication to help me with the stress and agony. The place was fraught with bullies, gossips, backstabbers and office politics due to the extremely flat nature of the company where everyone was vying for limited promotions and recognition. Everyone seemed miserable. I worked with an extremely toxic female co-worker who was jealous of me and on more than one occasion said that she thought I was her replacement directly and to some of my support staff (which is silly because we were in different departments).While our job duties “seemed” to overlap, she was in a support role for my unit and another unit that I worked with and I was senior to her in rank within the company. At any rate, we only overlapped for 3 months during which period she was hysterical, yelling, screaming, crying and she went to HR to complain about me (she also had previous HR issues with her former boss causing her to be moved to that position she was in when I started working with her) and gossiped about me to anyone and everyone. She had been at the company much longer than me so knew way more many people that she did everything she could to tarnish my reputation.

Fast forward, I found a great job I start in 2015 and am very excited about it and have only heard good things about the people in my department and the culture of my department. The catch is…the former toxic coworker is also at that company and has been there for about a year and a half. We both work in the same subject matter but in completely different roles in different departments. There’s already a big meeting I was invited to attend and I saw her name on the list.

I’m afraid she will try the same things she did before and sabotage me. Yes, it will take time to prove her wrong but it is emotionally taxing and people love juicy gossip even if they aren’t sure it’s true or not. I don’t want to breathe life into what she says by addressing it directly but I don’t want to let people fill in the blanks either or let it grow a life on its own without nipping it in the bud. What can I do?? Thanks in advance!

Signed, Anticipating Trouble


Dear Anticipating Trouble:

Congratulations in landing a new job in a work environment that appears positive—positive except for a toxic ghost who works there now, and has for a year and a half. I can see why you are both excited about a new job and uneasy.

You say for two years you have worked in a workplace with “fraught with bullies, gossips, backstabbers and office politics.” I assume this is your analysis of it as a whole, although this toxic worker apparently had departed for this new workplace one and half years ago (if I interpret what you sent us correctly). With the help of “a therapist and taking short-term medication to help me with the stress and agony.” Have I sized up the situation accurately based on your own words? In light of anticipating that Ms. Toxic again making your work life miserable, your question is: Can I nip what she might do in the bud or head it off? Moreover you cap this off with an email address that poses you as ready for battle, (I’ll not include it in my response so as to keep this answer anonymous, but you actually use the fighting terms).

Such data causes me to think you are already fighting battles in your head even before the New Year and new job. So I say upfront, although you might see it as unsympathetic, you might still benefit from counseling with that therapist or someone else. You are an intelligent. That is evident by your articulate description of your situation and you seem to have some understanding of the politics of the corporate world. You seem to see it as filled with many competitors aggressively “vying for limited promotions and recognition”, or at least in some work organizations.

Your communique with its sorry picture or working life adds to the thousands of questions we have gotten about bully bosses and verbal abusive coworkers, affairs, discrimination, write ups, suspensions, and firings. If you have not, I urge you to study other of the Q&As we have posted, especially those that have been answered by the most savvy workplace woman I know, my workplace doctor Tina Lewis Rowe. Also, I predict you would find her own site inspirational. This said, therefore, is to acknowledge that the workplace can echo school day bullying and be similar to bashing on the football field cheered on by millions of fans. You are correct to suggest that structure of an organization in a competitive economy can foster incivility and dim the bright side of cooperative endeavor. So much so that while most individuals have learned how to weather its incivility, not only a few of those who have climbed the ladder have chosen to leave the rat race for less pay in more humane environments.

These remarks stirred by your anticipated trouble do not provide you protective armor or ammunition for a preemptive strike on the Ms. Toxic, nor do I suggest that is what you should do. Rather they propose questions, considerations and suggestions pertaining to an attitude and process that might enable you to cope, some which you may rule as out of line because this workplace doctor lacks knowledge that only you know. The first of these concern your attitude; the latter refer to what you might do at the new place of employment:

  1. Might it be self-fulfilling prophesy to see yourself as a combatant wary of a past enemy?
  2. Might it also be possible that a past enemy has proven she can be different in a different environment? At least, she has survived in this new one without making it as toxic as was the one in which you were both employed; according to your own observation, you have “only heard good things about the people in my department and the culture of my department.” Therefore, might it be better for you to change your toxic label of her to one that assumes good intensions and demeanor—one that is at least neutral—and doesn’t interpret every look and gesture as mean-spirited, such as when you see her name or a paper announcing a meeting at this new workplace?
  3. Have you reflected in the mirror of your soul or spoken with your therapist about seeing yourself as a victim or fostered that feeling. Might your description of a toxic workplace have caused you to see yourself as a victim? You most assuredly paint it as all bad: “fraught with bullies, gossips, backstabbers and office politics due to the extremely flat nature of the company where everyone was vying for limited promotions and recognition. Everyone seemed miserable.” And conversely you blame it on a need for therapy and meds; you are a victim of it.
  4. Regardless of that, the important thing for you now it to be healthy in body and mind. Are you a happy person? Do you have a balanced life—filled with enjoying healthy food, daily walks or exercise, involved with away from work creative enjoyable activities—singing in a choir, tutoring the less fortunate at your local library or school, working on creating a sustainable environment, and giving and accepting love???
  5. Have you learned the language of talking to yourself constructively, not       playing over and over past incivility, and replacing those memories with affirmative maxims such as “With a name like _____________ (insert your own name), it has to be good” or memorizing an inspirational poem such as Exhortation to the Dawn?
  6. What in the culture of this place to which you are moving makes it healthy? Will you fit in? Are you aware that the grass is not always greener and that honeymoons don’t last for long? And do you have experience in creating an effective communicating climate within a work group? Do you understand the value of being and being seen as a coach rather than a boss? Is team-work and semi-self-managed teams the rule rather than the exception? Are you good at adapting and providing structure that is clear and appropriately flexible?
  7. Are you aware of the value of collaboratively forming do and don’t communication rules with those in your work group, such as regular skull sessions, respectful listening, how to voice complaints, and talking with others and not about them? Are you able to motive others as it the story of Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle? If not you might appreciate reading those FishTales.
  8. You haven’t described the nature of your work, but does it lend itself to better practices, if not of International Standards, perhaps of the excitement of lean management and cutting waste—wasted supplies, wasted energy, wasted time, and wasted money? Do you care about and nurture the careers of those in your charge? Are you able to balance expectation for quality with consideration for the lives of those with whom your work?

Finally, are you open to consider these thoughts admittedly that may be far understanding you as a professional or person? Do any of them make sense? If not, feel free to challenge them and use them to prompt creative problem-solving in advance of this adventure of a new job. I sum these free candid advice and empathic suggestions with my signature sentence about interdependence: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden