Rid me of this poisonous parasite


I have a co-worker I have to deal with on many levels. Neither of us is in a higher position, but I work directly under the CEO, which adds a little more clout to my position, though I don't flaunt it.

I am the leader of two groups of which she is also a member. I have also been with the company for eight years to her 1 1/2.

This person is constantly talking down to me, going against direction I give in our meetings, and flaunts it in my face. She is volatile, manipulative and toxic. She has pulled me into meetings rooms to give me the "what-for" and what I need to change.

I have been to counselling to obtain coping skills and am also now taking anti-anxiety medication just so I can go to work. Many other staff have issues with this woman, too, but they don't have to interact with her as much as I do.

Managers above me empathize, but remind me that she isn't going to change. I love my job, but, as of late, am ready to quit - it's not worth the stress. Any good advice?

Jane, Oregon

Charles Helliwell's Answer:

This is a case of the 'Poisonous Parasite'; something which is sadly alive and kicking in almost every workplace you'd care to mention and has done so since the workplace was invented.

To deal with the poisonous parasite, you first have to understand what it is and where it lurks, before you can even begin to deal with it.

Dealing with it, requires you to immunize yourself from its destructive effects and then exorcise it from your immediate environment. What you cannot do is to turn it into a benign or even benevolent bug, because it feeds by poisoning and destroying its host before moving on to a new victim.

So, let's take a look at your case, where your co-worker is displaying all the key characteristics of the poisonous parasite. Since you've identified her and you know where to find her, it's now up to you to immunize yourself and get rid of her.

First and foremost, you must not allow her to see, sense or feel that her behaviour towards you is having any effect at all. It's hard, I know, because to instantly develop an apparently insensitive exterior to this person will not come naturally to you.

Nevertheless, that's what you have to do. Treat whatever she says to you as though it's inconsequential or irrelevant, which it probably is for the most part. Tell her (don't ask her) to put anything in writing - that's important.

At the same time, make sure that you follow up any verbal instructions to her, in writing. That way you have a record of it too, which can be used as evidence to support any disciplinary action which might be required at a later stage.

Never get embroiled in any email or written tit-for-tat. Ensure that you make her responsible for finding you and not vice versa, should any clarification be required.

Once again, tell her (never ask her) to put any comments or observations she wants to make about your behaviour or management style, in writing. If she wants to meet with you, make it first thing in the morning or last thing at night, depending on whether you're a morning or evening person.

Never discuss her behaviour with anyone else in the office and keep a short written record of any and all dysfunctional behaviour which relates to the productivity and wellbeing of you or your team.

Since she is looking for any means to goad you or make you look foolish, you have to be ready for her at meetings and when she interrupts, tell her politely but firmly too keep any points for the end of the meeting. The chances are she will have forgotten anyway, but even if she hasn't, make her wait until everyone else has had their say.

Be polite; be proper and be courteous at all times. When she questions why you're 'picking on her', tell her that 'you hadn't really noticed' and then tell her that if she has a complaint, to put it in writing.

Trust me, you will eventually bore her into either finding another 'victim' who she can feed off, or she'll just become more and more angry and frustrated that she's getting no response from you that she'll slip up and do something terminally foolish.

Remember, you ARE the senior party here. You've got eight years and the ear of the CEO. You would be wrong to assume that he/she isn't aware of what's going on. Your managers certainly are, because they are empathizing with you. So, everyone's looking at you to see what you're made of and how you're going to handle this parasite.

So go to it, Jane. You KNOW what's right and what's not. The solution lies not with counselling or medication; it lies with you, because, guess what ? If you allow yourself to become a victim here, you'll end up a victim wherever you go and whatever you do, because working life everywhere is filled with poisonous parasites.


About our Expert

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.

Older Comments

Although I think your advice to Jane is sound, I also think Jane is in a better situation with the employee coming directly to her with her complaints. My poisonous parasite discredits me to everyone else in the company and has the ear of the President through her friendship wth the President's gossipy assistant. It's tough and I would love to hear how others have handled it.

Richard Parker Canterbury


In your current situation, the only realistic option is to sit tight and batten down the hatches. There's no point in confronting your nemesis, given the leverage she has via the President of your organisation. I once had to endure a similar situation, which I dealt with badly at first, until I saw the same happening to a more mature and experienced colleague. His advice, which I subsequently adopted, was to just wait it out and don't give the parasite the pleasure of seeing it affect you. This requires a bit of 'acting' and is particularly difficult to do, since you almost have to put your career on hold, whilst you do. However, it is a bit like riding out a storm. Normal progress will be resumed, once the storm has abated. During that time, you may well have taken a battering, but the point is, you'll still be afloat and mobile. And so it will be with your career, once this parasite sees that there's no leverage to be gained from bad-mouthing you. In conjuction with this, start perfecting a 'knowing smile'. A knowing smile is that expression you adopt in front of someone to make them think that you know something they should, but don't. Smile your knowing smile, whenever you see your nemesis or the President's assistant. You'll drive them nuts trying to find out what it is, and that means they will make mistakes. The more mistakes they make, the greater their exposure. This works a treat every time and will eventually put you right back in control of this ghastly situation.

Charles Helliwell London

For senior management to claim that the parasite will not change is unreasonable. Surely we should be allowed to work in an environment that is relatively free from conflict and that is one responsibility of management. Having said that, it is probable, as in my case, that they will sweep the matter under the carpet. I also feel that this 'Agony Aunt' approach is not appropriate. What works for one person may not work for another. My advice to Jane is to find out what works for her, be it the knowing smile, snubbing, confrontation or whatever and do that. Richard Parker was right in trying to find out other approaches.

Tom Colchester, Essex

Of course, Tom, and I couldn't agree with you more. Each individual's circumstance is different from the next. I'm not offering a panacea for either Jane or Richard; it's just an approach which I, amongst many others have used, and which happens to work. As you, yourself, will know, however, it's sometimes very difficult to see a different perspective when you're right in the middle of the maelstrom. This viewpoint is offered with genuine regret and apologies if it continues to offend your sensibilities by sounding too much like an 'Agony Aunt'.

Charles Helliwell Wimbledon, London