This can be a really distressing thing to discover – that your boss has actually been sneaking around your workplace, talking badly about you to colleagues or other management (“trash talking”, “bad mouthing” or “talking smack” about you).
It’s often the sneakiness of their behavior that’s most upsetting and confusing, because they might be seemingly very nice to our face, but then we either overhear things or find out from others that they’ve been talking badly about us behind our backs.
What can we do in these situations? How do we respond to our boss if they’re trash talking us behind our backs? Can we even do anything, or do we just need to leave?
There isn’t a one size fits all answer to this, because there are so many moving parts, like the overall company culture and quality of the workforce, the personality style of your boss, plus your own temperament, that go into deciding how you respond to these “smear campaigns” by your boss.
Here is a summary set of suggestions:
It is recommended to consult a legal professional and carefully and thoroughly document all details and evidence of your boss talking badly about you behind your back to others, gathering as complete a record as possible of their unprofessional behavior at the time it happens. If the overall company culture is still supportive, then escalating grievances to HR may be viable, but in un-supportive and toxic workplaces, it is often best to move on to another employer before smear campaigns escalate any further.
In other words, it is always advisable to document whatever toxic trash-talking your boss is engaged in regardless of the company, but in some workplaces, you need to carefully assess whether confronting them and escalating grievances is even a fight worth having, and whether your energy would be better spent moving on to a better work environment instead.
Let’s look at some of the factors that go into deciding how to react to your boss sneaking around talking about you behind your back.
Disclaimer – This article is just a starting point to provide readers struggling with this kind of situation some ideas, suggestions and options on possible ways to move forward. However, none of this information should be taken as gospel, since I don’t know your exact situation and every situation is different, so it’s important to always consult with trusted people, including friends, family, therapists and legal professionals, before deciding on what course of action to take in your particular circumstance.
Document All Inappropriate & Unprofessional Behavior From Your Boss
This is the first and most important suggestion when you encounter evidence that your boss is engaging in toxic behavior such as sneaking around talking badly about you behind your back – document, document, document:
It is very important to fully document all instances of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from your boss (including talking negatively about you behind your back). This means keeping a detailed written record of all events, evidence, conversations with others, overheard conversations, etc, including the time and date they happened.
You should also do this immediately as it happens, not much later, so you have an ongoing, chronological record of all their unprofessional behavior (including sneaking around talking smack about you) over time. It can be hand written, typed, recorded, or whatever (consult a legal professional for advice if unsure).
That way, if it does come down to grievances, disciplinary/legal action, or other such “crunch” moments, you have a detailed record of what happened, and when, to fall back on. HR departments can only deal with documented evidence, so document everything you can remember about such incidents, including:
- What they’ve said about you, to whom, and when.
- Who has relayed this information to you about your boss’s behavior, if applicable, and when. What was said in those conversations.
- Conversations you’ve overheard or walked in on whilst your boss was talking negatively about you to others. When/where they happened and who was present.
- Emails or texts you’ve seen if applicable (get screenshots if you can).
- Any relevant conversations you’ve had with your boss (when, where, what was said), especially if it demonstrates evidence of duplicity (two-facedness), deceit, lying by omission and other unprofessional behavior.
- Any evidence of more direct and overt bullying or intimidation from your boss (provocative, undermining, abusive, disrespectful or otherwise toxic behavior directly towards you).
- When and where any of these events/conversations took place, and with whom.
If in doubt about how to document evidence properly, consult a legal professional in your jurisdiction who specializes in employment law. Many offer free initial consultations (here’s a generic search page online to get you started), which should be plenty sufficient to get a simple strategy worked out on how to properly document evidence against your boss and proceed forward, if you explain the situation to them.
Be Aware Of The Possibility Of Cluster B Disorders
If your boss is sneaking around talking trash about you behind your back, then at the very least, they are being unprofessional in their behavior, and are probably unsuitable to be a manager.
However, if this sort of thing seems to be a systematic and pervasive pattern of behavior from them, and they also have a clustering of other toxic personality traits (including manipulativeness, deceitfulness, exploitativeness etc), then it’s also possible that they have a full blown personality disorder.
More specifically, with this kind of behavior, you are probably dealing with the Cluster B spectrum of personality disorders, especially anti-social personality disorder (psychopathy/sociopathy) and narcissistic personality disorder (NDP).
These personality types are characterized not just by an occasional instance of dishonesty or trash-talking, but by a pervasive and deeply ingrained set of pathological personality traits they always manifest in some way on daily basis.
Here are key traits for each personality disorder:
ASPD (Psychopathy/sociopathy) – Provocative, reaction seeking, manipulative, deceitful, power-fixated, glib, insincere, callous, lacking empathy or remorse, among others See the link above or our article for more on each of these traits.
NPD (narcissism) – Most of the above traits, plus exploitativeness, entitlement, grandiosity, a sense of “specialness” or “uniqueness”, haughtyness, arrogance, pomposity, self importance, among others. See the link above for more on these traits, plus our article on the stereotype of the workaholic narcissist.
Readers might think this distinction is all well and good, but what’s the difference between someone who’s just a trash talker or a bad-mouther, versus someone who actually has a full blown personality disorder? How does it affect how I react to this kind of situation?
The difference lies in what you’re going to be up against if you do confront them and escalate action against them. You need to be extra aware and extra careful when planning your course of action with psychopaths/narcs, because these personality types are extremely manipulative and adept at “getting away with it” and making things go their way, even when they are the ones acting unprofessionally.
Here are some thing to be wary of with these personality types in workplaces:
- They are extremely good manipulators and often have the management above them “in their back pockets“, which means you’re less likely to be viewed sympathetically if you do escalate a complaint.
- If you do escalate action, you’ll often find the psychopath/narcissist has already been smearing you to colleagues and management long before you even realized, perhaps way back from the beginning of dealing with them. They’ve built up an entire false narrative of you in the eyes of others that can hard to fight against and prove wrong.
- They are also very good at co-opting apathetic bystanders (“useful idiots”) into their smear campaigns against you, in getting others to side with them against you.
- They are very adept at deceiving others with various forms of deception, including more subtle tactics like “lying by omission“, half truths and so on.
- They are also very good at lying and wriggling their way out things if they ever do get in trouble. They always seem to “get away with it” even when they’re caught red handed doing something wrong.
- All of these things are especially true for the psychopath, but also for the narcissist to a lesser extent.
All of these factors with personality disordered people mean you need to be much more careful in how you proceed, and you also need to carefully vet and reflect on the overall culture of the company before deciding if this is a battle you want to fight (which we’ll cover in the section further below.).
Dealing with an isolated, un-intelligent, trash-talking “bad egg” versus an experienced, pathological manipulator are two very different things. Depending on the company, the former battle might be worth fighting, while the latter may not, and you may be better served moving on to something better.
Provocation & Trash Talking From Your Boss (Smear Campaigns)
Following on from the above section, personality disordered people often don’t just sneak around talking badly about workers to others; they actually provoke reactions from their target first, in an attempt to make the trash-talking about you seem justified.
It’s very important to be aware of this provocation smear campaign tactic; here’s a general common sequence of how it works with workplace trouble-maker bosses:
- A disordered individual (psychopath/sociopath/narcissist) provokes you.
- You deal with the issue calmly, thinking the conflict is resolved.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, many, many times.
- Eventually, you react less calmly, sick of the provocations.
- The disordered individual victimizes themselves from your reaction: “Oh wow, you’re so crazy/sensitive/impatient/cranky/moody/difficult/awkward)!”
- They also go sneaking around to others in the workplace gossiping about your provoked reaction, trying to paint out to others (including middle and senior management) that you are “going crazy” or some other smear. They try to gradually erode your reputation among colleagues and management in the workplace.
Here’s a good summary quote on this:
“It’s called the smear campaign and it started even before your breakup or the blowup in a work situation…What they’re doing is provoking reactions from you and then sneaking around the sharing those reactions with people to slowly show this person is going “crazy”….
That smear campaign is about turning people against you, even your own friends, so you have no support after it’s done”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
If you identify this as a common pattern with your boss – they seem to be trying to provoke reactions in you first, and THEN sneaking around gossiping about your reaction to others – understand you are not alone with this. Once you see what they are doing, you will also better understand the need to always remain calm and not rise to their attempts to provoke you, since this is feeding them the ammunition to them sneak around and try smearing you to others.
It’s a very common pattern with manipulative workplace troublemakers, and you can add this context to your documentation to create a clearer picture of what your boss is doing, and why. Conversing with other trusted colleagues, you may also “put the pieces together” and find they have tried doing this with them as well. It’s a well worn tactic, especially from provocative, reaction seeking personality types like psychopaths and narcissists.
Assessing The Culture Of The Company When Deciding What To Do
In an ideal world, then workplace trouble-makers would be seen for who and what they are, and would be properly punished for toxic behavior like sneaking around trash-talking good workers behind their back.
But the harsh truth is that the world of work ISN’T always fair, especially in Western countries, and often toxic bosses do get away with unprofessional behavior, and don’t get properly dealt with for what they do to others. Sincere, conscientious, well meaning workers also often get unfairly pathologized, gas-lit and pushed out of jobs if they try to raise valid concerns about the behaviors of their boss.
This is why if you do have this problem, it’s very important to carefully evaluate the overall culture of the company you’re in before deciding your next step. In the modern workplace, some battles are not worth fighting, even if you are the one being wronged.
Here are some example scenarios to explain what I mean by this:
Scenario #1 – Whilst your boss is behaving badly, trash-talking about you, manipulating, deceiving, and otherwise acting unprofessional, they seem to be an isolated “bad egg”. Most co-workers are on your side, and frequently supportively report back to you on what they’re saying behind your back. Some or all are happy to go into meetings with you to report on your boss’s behavior, and they clearly don’t buy into the nonsense narratives your boss is pushing about you. In other words, they aren’t buying into your boss’s attempts to smear you behind your back. Plus, the overall culture of the company is still good, with most middle and upper management having strong integrity, appropriate boundaries with other levels of management, and proper conduct and behavior, treating others with dignity and respect. The trouble-maker does not have them “in their back pocket”.
Comments – Whilst you must always consult a legal professional first, in these kinds of scenarios, it’s often worth escalating grievances against your trouble-maker boss, if they are an isolated trouble-maker and all the evidence both at the colleague and management level indicates you’ll be properly treated, supported and listened to. A transfer to another shop or department may also be feasable if the overall company culture is still good.
Scenario #2 – Your boss is toxic, but so is the entire company culture, with a general unsympathetic and un-supportive culture, more likely to side with your boss than you, even if you have documentation. Your boss seems to be “untouchable” even despite obvious unprofessional behavior, and has the management above them “wrapped around their little finger”. They also seem to have a lot of your colleagues on their side, who seem to have bought into the trash they’ve been talking about you behind your back. They seem to have turned people against you with their bad-mouthing. Asking for a transfer is often no good, because you’ll likely be moved from one toxic boss to another one, because the company is so full of them.
Comments – Almost always not even worth fighting these battles, if there’s little evidence of anyone seeing the toxic boss for what they are, and also little evidence of upper management being sympathetic towards workers or treating grievances against your boss seriously. Even with evidence and documentation, you’re likely to be gas-lit into believing you’re the problem, and have to fight lengthy and exhausting legal battles to win any constructive dismissal cases. Consult with a legal expert, but it’s often best to cut your losses, save your energy and move on to another employer before the smear campaigns can escalate any further.
Scenario #3 – Somewhere between scenario #1 and scenario #2 – Of course every company is different, but if you’ve got something of a confusing mix between the first and second example, then you need to consider more carefully and make it even more of a priority to consult with legal professionals first. But if there’s any doubt, it’s often advisable to lean towards simply pro-actively leaving and moving on to something better, than staying and fighting against a company culture that’s heading in the wrong direction.
The most foundational observation you might make that would be a HUGE red flag about the company culture would be something like this:
You may stand back and look at all the inappropriate and unprofessional behavior you’ve observed from your boss, and wonder something like: “how did this person even get to be in this position? And even more amazingly, how have they managed to stay there with the way they behave?” But you seem to be largely alone in your (common sense) observation.
And then here are some general red flags to watch out for in workplace cultures that usually mean it’s time to move on to a better company:
- A high concentration of employees in the company with strong sociopathic or Cluster B personality traits. Much higher prevalence than the 1-4% in the general population. Dark Triad Traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism) is another good way of defining these toxic characteristics.
- The overall quality of the workforce is poor, with lots of apathetic, negative, easily manipulated, easily influenced people, perhaps along with some pathological manipulators as well.
- The line(s) of work or the company has no vocational or charitable aspects whatsoever – it is purely commercial. This is most definitely NOT a telltale aspect on it’s own as many commercial companies exist which are not toxic. However it is a red flag in combination with some of the other factors listed.
- The line of work exploits, mistreats or has contempt for it’s customers, often preying on despair and destitution. Betting, gambling and pawnbroking are particularly bad industries on this front.
- Watch out also for a culture of moral relativism coming from mid and upper levels – clever sounding management-speak like “There’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you can justify it”, which actually opens the door for workplace psychopaths and narcissists to just do whatever they like and get away with it. Be careful in companies with this relativistic outlook and a lack of true principles and “lines in the sand”.
- A generally un-supportive and unsympathetic tone from middle and upper management towards workers.
- Workers frequently gas-lit and unfairly pathologized, being blamed themselves when they raise valid complaints.
- There is high staff turnover in the company or the industry in general. Workers treated as replaceable and disposable, and may even be disrespectfully told this to their face by arrogant middle managers.
- A clear pattern and history of sudden, acrimonious resignations and/or constructive dismissal cases by conscientious former workers, who feel they’ve been unfairly treated and are seeking recompense for what happened.
- There is a culture of backstabbing, division and people throwing their colleagues “under the bus” in the company. It is difficult to trust anyone.
- There is no respect at all for privacy and confidentiality. Information which should be kept confidential regarding employees and/or customers is routinely disclosed in conversations. Unprofessional behavior is ingrained into the culture and is seen to be “normal”. The abnormal is normalized.
- Gas-lighting – the invalidation of perception – is rampant in the company. Genuine concerns and common sense observations about unacceptable or unprofessional behavior are routinely shrugged off and dismissed. Management are more concerned with “being right” in the moment and coming up with a clever answer for everything rather than addressing genuine concerns and creating a good culture.
- There is rampant hypocrisy and double standards within the company culture, with certain “in” people allowed to pretty much get away with what they want without censure, whilst others are ruthlessly cracked down on for much lesser infringements. The rules are not applied consistently and often the more psychopathic members of staff are the ones allowed to get away with more.
- An overall culture of “looking the other way” – tolerating unprofessional conduct from certain workers because they are seen as “good for the business”.
- On top of all this, a constant series of excuses, rationalizations and “clever” answers from management to justify all these toxic cultural patterns. Toxic individuals are always trying to make excuses for their behavior, and toxic companies are exactly the same.
- You generally observe a lack of worker satisfaction and reports of poor treatment of staff are common, from within and/or outside the company. Employer review sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor are excellent resources to get feedback about employers from.
See our article on toxic workplace cultures for more on this.
If you’re seeing any or all of these red flags, then it’s a warning sign that you need to carefully consider whether it’s even worth escalating action against your boss, because you’re not only fighting against them, but against the entire culture in the company as well. Your energy may be better used moving on to a better job instead.