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Work & Money

I Cut Ties With A Toxic Work Friend (Yet I Still Saw Her Daily)

“It’s not personal. It’s business,” she would say each time I learned she’d undermined my progress on a shared project or badmouthed me to our boss. Here’s how I put the drama and stress behind me.

By Anonymous

We worked in an office where you’d arrive on Monday to hear that another coworker had resigned, yelled at a colleague or filed a complaint with human resources. On the job a few months, I had a drawer stocked with antacids and pain relievers — plus the realization that somebody had to have my back.

Iris* and I weren’t besties, but I felt we’d built trust as we collaborated and traded honest feedback. Over lunch, we swapped stories about our personal lives. (She was nervous about her less-than-disciplined son heading to a party school; I was relieved for my sister that her divorce was final). I could visit Iris’ office any time, close the door and vent — and she could do the same. We’d end up shaking our heads over the matter, laughing in relief and ready to move forward. During those confessionals, Iris would say of other workers, “She’s a nice person, but incompetent.” She also once revealed she’d argued loudly with a team member “because of his drama.” But I was friendly and supportive. Why wouldn’t she speak well of me?

In a meeting, our department head needed changes to a special-events display I’d helped design. I felt a ripple of excitement at an opportunity to step up and shine. I got the go-ahead. Though the task, routine for Iris, might have gone to her, I saw it as a chance for me to show creative problem-solving. And if I got stuck, she’d happily be there to help! Impinging on her turf was the last thing on my mind.

But later that week, our boss abruptly insisted that Iris should finish the redesign. Had she spoken of me the way she’d spoken of others, questioning my competence? My real upset wasn’t about Iris wanting the opportunity. It was the way she had gone up the chain of responsibility without first coming to me. We talked every day, yet she gave me not a word, not a wink, not even a smoke signal that she’d been upset. If she had, we could have settled things easily.

Later, Iris apologized. She said she appreciated me and that what she did “wasn’t personal, it was business.” It was cliché, but I chose to move on given our friendship.

Things were fine, until Hurricane Iris made landfall again.

We traded emails about tasks for another project. She didn’t like a plan that I laid out, and when she hit reply to protest, she copied my supervisor. Iris had often complained in private about this same manager. Yet she had no problem engaging with this woman and others to further her agenda, I thought later that night as I struggled to sleep. She became more terse and rude with each email — always with a wide distribution list. I tensed up as I read them. I felt exposed, targeted.

Alarmed, I confided in a coworker. He told me that others had lost respect for Iris due to her undermining emails and disruptive yelling, which turned out not to be an isolated incident. I took a step back and reflected. I’d trusted Iris even though I’d seen how she treated others, and I needed to own that. I wasn’t worried that she had hurt my reputation — yet. But dealing with her drained my spirit. Why should I lose more sleep?

I decided we were done. Seeing Iris in the conference room or walking into the kitchenette as I poured coffee, I coolly spoke to her about projects only . If she emailed about work, I responded. Otherwise, I hit delete.

Leaving one evening, I felt a presence behind me. Iris walked up and asked, “Why are you so distant?” My jaw tense, I broke my silence and said, “Iris, you can’t throw me under the bus and expect things to stay the same.” She offered the “business not personal” cliché again. Our awkward exchange continued in circles. I said goodnight.

While the experience shook my trust, I still think we need work friends for mutual support and simple enjoyment. At my current job, I’m tight with Joyce*, a positive teammate who has never been catty or territorial. We check on each other when sick. If the absence spans a few days during flu season, we have a little joke when we call: “”Hey, just making sure you’re not passed out, sweetie. Need anything?” Now, that’s a friend worth keeping.

*Name and identifying details have been changed.

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