By Meghan Casserly
Identifying the frenemy
The biggest danger is that you never know where a frenemy is lurking. One mid-level employee at a New York City-based marketing firm turned to her close friend at a company-wide meeting to criticize the boss's address. "He's an idiot," she confided, "Everybody knows it." Two days later she was greeted by boxes on her desk when she arrived at work and was told she was leaving the company. Her friend, it was revealed, was a direct line of communication to the boss, and used the criticism as a power play. "I was canned," she says, but she points a finger at today's cutthroat job market.
Ellen Lubin-Sherman, author of The Essentials of Fabulous (Because Whatever Doesn't Work Here Anymore), agrees. "When you've got an atmosphere that's rife with competition and you're dealing with people who are trying to make themselves look good, it's unfortunate."
"You really can't trust people. Monica Lewinsky famously learned the hard way. Even if someone seems like a good friend, you just never know."
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Spotting the frenemy
So how does one spot such a "friend?" Lubin-Sherman defines them as a "rival with which one maintains friendly relations," but even that seems a euphemism for the back-stabbing Cook experienced.
"The frenemy blows hot and cold," she says. "She undermines your confidence in any way she can. Maybe she schedules a meeting and forgets to mention it to you." Lubin-Sherman stresses that this toxic friend can be a man or a woman, but that the gender gap has created a particularly competitive environment for women in the workplace. "When everyone's out to prove herself, frenemies' claws come out. Maybe you find out a bunch of people went out to lunch and you weren't asked. Maybe your boss was invited and you weren't."
Once you've identified your friend as a potential foe, the onus is on you. Address the conflict head on and you might have a chance to turn your friendship around-not all frenemies are sociopaths, and some might change their behavior given a head's up. Say nothing, however, and you're dooming yourself to a dismal workplace relationship that could go from bad to much, much worse. Or, says Lubin-Sherman, there's always the "slow-fade" tactic to ending the friendship.
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Outing the frenemy
"I'm not into the slow-fade of just disappearing," she says. "It sends the wrong message and could ultimately tarnish your reputation at work." Instead, take the high road and find time to sit down with your frenemy. The trick, she says, is to keep the conversation genial-and to make it about yourself. "Always use the 'I' word, never the accusatory 'you,'" a lesson Cook learned when she confronted her friends at the happy hour. "I guess their response makes sense in hindsight," she says. "I accused them of bad behavior and they went on the attack."
Try this instead: "I'm feeling that there's something going on between us that's not working for both of our best interest." Or "I'm feeling that our relationship has become competitive and if it continues this way could hurt both of our reputations at work." By highlighting your own feelings, Lubin-Sherman says, rather than their behavior alone, you create the opportunity for an effective dialogue-and hopefully avoid an ugly outburst.
In a best-case scenario you've opened your friend's eyes to a nasty undercurrent in your friendship and you could be on the path to a mended professional-if not personal-relationship. "Worst case they take what you say and use it to attack you or simply shut you down." If that's the case, understand that your so-called friend may not be open to change or improvement, Lubin-Sherman says, "and it's ultimately her loss."
"We're not in third grade anymore," she concludes, "We're at work."
Article orginally appeared on Forbes.com.
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By Meghan Casserly