Koralee is an Author and writer who loves writing to bless, heal, inspire, elevate, and dignify the minds and hearts of her readers.
Some work environments are warm, fuzzy, uplifting and inspirational places with everyone working as a team. Other workplaces are hostile work environments with toxic coworkers and/or bully bosses. But both environments can be infiltrated by a workplace snake, also known as the office snake.
The workplace snake doesn’t walk or run - they gracefully slither. You might not even notice them until one day...bam you get bit; and then you’re left wondering what happened, if it will happen again, and if there’s something you can do to stop it.
In this article we’re going to look at signs you’re dealing with a workplace snake, how to protect yourself, and whether you should hiss back, run for cover or step on their head (figuratively). These reptile-like humans are like an abusive boss or bully co-worker but they’re clever enough to stay hidden in the grass.
TOC: Ultimate Guide to Workplace Snakes
In this article I will cover the following topics:
- What is an office snake?
- My Workplace Snake Experiences
- How I Recognized a Workplace Snake
- Workplace Snake Personas
- 5 Favorite Tactics of a Workplace Snake
- Types of Workplace Snakes and the Degrees of Damage They Inflict
- How to Know You’re on the Workplace Snake’s Bite List
- What Drives the Workplace Snake?
- 10 Ways to Beat Toxic Coworkers
What is an Office Snake?
Simply put, the workplace snake is someone who sneaks around, speaks in whispers, gathers secrets, spread lies and creates chaos. Then they masterfully slither away from trouble just as quickly as they started it - hoping to go unnoticed.
They seek to sabotage and undermine their co-workers, specifically their reputations, and position within the organization every chance they get. They slowly push others down, hoping to pull themselves up.
If the office snake is after you it’s often because you’ve disagreed with them, done something they perceive as threatening; or think you might expose them. Never doubt they have a reason for going after you whether it’s real, or in their head. Whatever their reason it’s normally aligned with a sinister agenda.
My Workplace Snake Experiences
Disclaimer: I want to let you know I’m not a psychologist and have limited Human Resources experience.
However, I love psychology and I’m an avid researcher and observer of human behaviors; with a great dislike of mean spirited behaviors, ostracizing, bullying and harmful cliques (the ones which breed an atmosphere of exclusivity where the leaders can be toxic).
This of course values sometimes make me a target for workplace snakes and office bullies, but thankfully they’re a rare species in my experience. I’ve had more than a few snake attacks during my lifetime. But, I’m stubborn, patient, thick skinned with a plan for my life.
As always, my goal with this article is to help heal and inspire those who are hurting because of the toxic actions of others – It’s not you, it’s THEM!
How I Recognized a Workplace Snake
Oddly enough I became aware of a workplace snake once when one day she told me someone else at work was a ‘snake in the grass’. It got me thinking back to events leading up to the supposed ‘snake in the grass’ leaving and how this person played a role - they got their job. It was an eye-opening moment for me.
Was this cheating? I don't think so because I would have clued in because of her future behavior.
Prior to the conversation I mentioned above she did things that bothered me – from now on I’ll call her Cheryl Blossom. Not surprising, they turned out to be signs of a workplace snake.
- She never has eye contact
- When she talked about news stories or workplace events she always embellished them for dramatic effect.
- She worked slowly and spent a lot of time engaged in whispered conversations in various corners of the workplace. Appearing to be a caring confident friend to her co-workers.
Cheryl reminded me a lot of another snake I had the misfortune of working with. She was a receptionist at a law firm I worked at. She too had the above noted behaviors, and because of her receptionist position (she was the rock of the office), she had a lot of control.
She was also a thief and habitual liar. She would talk about stuff going missing and pointed fingers at people (mostly clients) as the culprit. In the end she was revealed as the office snake and was humanely disposed of.
Being new and inexperienced at snake charming I didn’t handle the situation properly. I’ll let you know what I did wrong, and why my technique backfired in the section 10 Ways to Beat Toxic Coworkers
Workplace Snake Personas
A workplace snake can’t reveal who they really are - a reptile like creature lurking in the shadows. Some office snakes are funny, charming, and enigmatic. They can appear to be everyone’s friend who is keenly interested in everyone’s best interest.
They try to pull as many people close to them as possible, only to use them to get what they want - at any price.
To gather their often-unknowing lynch mob, they slither around other departments as well. They’re often seen in quiet discussions, injecting themselves in matters that don’t concern them and sometimes seek an unknowing helper(s) to poison the reputations of others at work.
They’re continually on the lookout for potential issues in the workplace so they can use the situation when they need it. Office snakes are skilled at making workplace disagreements in the workplace more antagonistic and dramatic
Remember – Office Snakes are People
It’s important to note office snakes are people too – it’s their behaviors that yare snakelike. Their behavior is driven by fear and loss. They have self esteem issues, poor work habits, or unsettled home lives.
They might believe they can’t get another job because they have limited skills. Their position might reflect their self image, so they work hard to create a persona; and then strive to protect it.
However, sometimes we’re too quick to point fingers, and our problems are self made. Before acting, look at yourself to see if you might be contributing to the situation. For example, If you know they’re insecure about their abilities and you antagonize them; they might feel cornered, so they’ll strike back to protect themselves.
If the situation is easy to solve by communicating differently with them, you should do it.
5 Favorite Tactics of a Workplace Snake
Like their reptile counterpart’s workplace snakes tactics and degree of poison vary. Below we’ll look at common techniques used by snakes at work.
1. The Suck Up and/or Credit Stealer:
This type of snake sucks up to senior management, does shifty things and takes credit for other people’s work or ideas. They do this to shine the spotlight on themselves. This action is generally taken when it’s least expected, and in front of an audience.
2. Judas The Betrayer - Backbiter
This type of snake is dangerous, so you must proceed with caution. They pretend to be on your side but when you’re not around they insult you, lie and are probably trying to destroy you at work.
3. Tongue Wagger - Gossiper:
This snake can be deadly, so beware. Most people participate in gossip to a degree, but the snake takes it to the extreme. They exaggerate what’s going around the office grapevine with the belief they’ll look better by spreading lies - they’re calculating and know exactly what they’re doing.
The upside is most people will see through this, but sometimes not until after the damage is done.
This office snake is dangerous because their intentions are malicious. This person is involved in, or around, almost every workplace conflict; and they’re oddly at peace with darkness and chaos.
5. Unsupportive Supervisor:
This workplace snake is venomous if it’s the unsupportive manager who has an issue with you. If you’re manager doesn’t have your back you’re on your own (isolated), which is always dangerous. Some managers are threatened by their subordinates; while some love the power they get making others feel insignificant (abusive bosses).
Types of Workplace Snakes and the Degrees of Damage They Inflict
The result of each tactic used by a snake comes with its own degree of severity. Workplace snakes might use one or a few them to carry out their agenda.
How Dangerous is the Workplace Suck up?
This snake is easy to spot. He or she is always talking to management or bosses, complimenting and/or praising them; taking an interest in their personal life and sometimes asking for favors.
What you won’t see until you get bitten is what the snake does behind closed doors with management. “Helping” them by letting them know what’s going on when they’re not around. Although this could benefit the workplace if it’s true, but the problem is the snake will lie or tell half truths.
Always remember the workplace snake has an agenda.
Other times the suck up snake will tell management and/or co-workers how much other staff and clients love their work.
Workplace snakes are only devoted to those in charge simply because they’re in charge.
Business strategy expert Jappreet Sethi, the co-founder of marketing at YoStartups, wrote in an editorial featured on LinkedIn:
“They [Brown nosers] seem to have very little personal dignity, or a very strange version of it. Getting and staying in the good books of their (and your) superiors seems to be their main priority.”
The good news is, according to Seth, this technique rarely works.
“However, you would do well to remember that they rarely get the results they want.”
How Dangerous is the Credit Stealer?
The effects of the credit stealer snake vary depending on the result of the theft. It can destroy a career or stop a promotion. Often though, it can be easily spotted by a manager who is only a little observant.
An article on the Harvard Business Review website said the following about credit stealers:
“We want to believe that our work speaks for itself. But “in the real world, it matters who gets credit,” says Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics.
“That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments.”
For tips on what to do if someone at work has taken credit for your work you can go here to read the Harvard Review article.
How Big of a Problem is Judas The Betrayer?
It’s big and could cause severe damage to your career. When you feel betrayed or alienated you’re more stressed, anxious and fearful. Your focus shifts to finding the cause and/or figuring out how to deal with the snake. Your productivity drops as a result, and if the snake isn’t stopped they could bring down the entire workplace.
How Big of a Problem is the Gossiper/Backbiting Office Snake?
Gossiping is a huge problem (I could write an entire 5000+ word article on the damaging effects of gossiping), because it causes people at work to make decisions and judgments based on untrue information. It can ruin a career and destroy an entire business.
Gossiping also inflicts a lot of other damage on unintended targets (the victim’s family and home life).
According to New York city social worker Melody Wilding, there are different types of gossipers. The backbiter (you confide in them and they use the information against you), the idler (they’re bored with nothing else to do but spread rumors), and the complainer (they’re jealous of a co-worker who got a bonus/promotion, or they’re threatened by someone they work with).
How Dangerous is the Unsupportive Manager?
If the workplace snake is your manager, you’re probably in trouble because you don’t have anyone to defend you. Take a step back so you can evaluate the situation and do what you can to cover your butt.
Your game plan should be to approach them and request feedback on your performance and important projects. Don’t get defensive—it will only provoke a venomous snake bite.
Now you know there’s an office snake in your midst, how do you know if they’re after you? Below is a list common signs.
How to Know You’re on the Workplace Snake’s Bite List?
When a snake is about to attack it puts its head down, flattens and fixes you a square-on gaze to warn you it's about to strike; but, most workplace snakes don’t. They're more cunning and like to things on the sly.
You can use the following ways to see if you're a target.
- How you Feel Around the Snake: Often it’s a gut feeling you can’t explain. Something is off, and you don’t trust them.
- Rumors About Yourself and Tension in the Workplace: You might hear a rumor(s) about yourself at work, you might feel tension from your coworkers, or someone might blatantly withhold information from you, ignore you or blame you for something you didn’t do. These are signs the office snake has convinced them you’re an enemy to the them, the team, or company.
- Exaggerated Stories: One way to know something’s going on is when you hear untrue or grossly exaggerated stories about yourself.
- A Subtle Hint: You might learn about the snake from another co-worker. They’ll give you a hint in casual conversation. Someone may ask you “What happened, Betty said the war is on between you and Veronica.” This might be the first time you’re aware there is a problem. You may not always agree with Veronica but if others are noticing tension she might be planning an attack. Betty could also be the snake causing the drama.
- Contention/Finger Pointing/Lazy: Snakes at work are scheming and love turning people against each other; thus, they’re quick to point a finger. They seem to be friendly and hard-working but when you watch them closer you find they’re not your friend and definitely aren’t hard working.
What Drives the Workplace Snake?
Everyone has a “Why.” Some people, because of insecurities, jealousy, general apathy, laziness, or something worse they bring problematic agendas to work. The office snake prospers on negative attention.
Conflict feeds their fragile ego and they enjoy making coworkers feel bad. They’re often insecure and self-centered.
A workplace snake is a master manipulator. They have a need to control and influence others in deceitful ways. They’re untrustworthy and can make you forget they have ulterior motives if you're not careful.
They’ll use you for information and use it against you later. Don’t give them what they want; always keep them at arm’s length. Be vague about your personal life and never put anything in writing.
10 Ways to Beat Toxic Coworkers
Toxic coworkers, particularly workplace snakes are on a mission to destroy someone or group in the office. You can't even try to guess what they're planning unless you think like them, which you probably don't.
You can try these 10 ways to beat the snake in your office.
1. Understand the Office Snake’s Motivation
Understanding their motivation might help you dodge a snake bite. For example, if they’re jealous about your promotion you could compliment them in front of management. If they’re critical about your work, ask for their input.
Try to uncover the issue so you can deal with it.
If that doesn’t work, you can outperform him or her and the more they criticize you the stupider they’ll look.
2. Create a Team Environment
Align yourself with positive coworkers. Spend your time building up your team, not tearing team members down. No matter what your position is in the company, you can play a role in creating a team environment where a reptile cannot survive.
If they can’t cause harm the office snake will move on.
3. Protect Your Team
The snake will try to inject the team with poison, to hinder your plans and advance their own agenda. Don’t let those schemes distract your focus. Commit to your team’s goals and stay receptive to your team and customers.
Who or what do you serve at work? Do you sell products to customers, deal with clients, guests, other businesses? Focus on them and the work.
4. Confront The Office Snake?
Sometimes you should extend your hand to the office snake, other times you'll want to use a stick. You can approach the snake, but don’t accuse them of anything. Say “I” rather than single them out.
Ask for clarification - question them without accusing; don’t put them on the defensive.
Only confront them if you think the conversation will be productive, and if necessary have someone with you so your conversation can't be misconstrued.
How to Deal With Passive Aggressive People
5. When to Ignore the Workplace Snake
Ignore them if you can because they tend to reveal their true selves over time so let them trap themselves.
But, If you choose to ignore them be proactive in your dealings with them. Always be aware of them; especially with important issues. They might thwart your work when you don’t expect it.
Don't keep the office snake close or you risk giving them more ammo. Just don't let them out of your sight for too long.
6. Choose Your Battles
Many actions of the office snake won’t be worth your time. Always stay true to yourself and remain committed to your goals. Save your energy for issues affecting your livelihood and reputation.
7.Don’t Follow Their Lead
An office snake can do their dirty work without help, but they prefer company in the dark. Never follow suit – embrace transparency and truth. Disassociate yourself from the lies and gossip. Don't help them in their efforts.
Don't retaliate. You might think you'll feel justified if you get revenge, but studies have found that you won't. If you want to read about recent studies you can read an article on the Huffington Post titled "Why Revenge Feels Both Satisfying And Demoralizing."
Consider how you'll feel after you go to their level and act like the office snake.
"While seeking revenge, dig two graves—one for yourself." Douglas Horton
8. Stay Professional
Show strength of character and DO NOT strike back. This is hard, but it will minimize their power. Eventually, the snake will realize you will not engage and they’ll lose momentum.
Think of them as a pesky fly and focus on work, a project, positive co-workers.
If that doesn't, work think of their behavior this way - If the snake is trying to annoy or stress you, the best way to get them back is by stay calm and professional. They hate when you deny them the satisfaction of getting you.
Never do This
When I was dealing with the office snake at the law firm I spoke of at the beginning of this article I was very vocal about my concerns. I confronted her about lying, not doing her work and causing $h@t.
My wallet was stolen from my desk while the office was out for lunch (except for her) and she blamed it on a pregnant client who walked by my desk on her way to the bathroom. My purse was in the second drawer of my desk.
About 10 minutes later she miraculously found my wallet (less money and credit card) in the bathroom under the sink.
I told management, and everyone who’d listen to my theories and what I thought was proof, but it backfired horribly. To a few of my coworkers I looked like I turned into Regina George in the movie Mean Girls. Management swooped in to protect her from me.
In the end she was let go because of petty cash being short too many times, work not being completed, and other reasons.
9. Document Information
Keep notes or a journal of conversations and keep copies of any communication in case you have to prove your case.
10. Know When to Walk Away and When to Run
When you've tried everything, but the problem continues, there’s no sense being a martyr. Sometimes your best choice is to walk away. If anything below describes you it might be better for you to leave.
- Dread going to the office
- Starting to resent your boss and/or the company
- You’re not performing to your capacity
Learn from your experience and find a better job. Troubled people are everywhere, but there’s also several great companies and people to work for – do some research and find them.
slaythebayfishing on August 05, 2020:
The feeling of peace with a fresh scent.
Carrie Lee Night from Northeast United States on May 02, 2020:
Thank you for sharing :) Its sometimes difficult to know if u think a person is really out to get u or if u are feeling paranoid. I work in behavioral health and even though our team is awesome :) there are times I question motives of some in particular. I try to stay out of the drama and place my focus on patients.
Kuntal Ch on December 27, 2019:
Quite interesting !!
Kelly Ann Christensen from Overland Park, Johnson County, Kansas on December 27, 2019:
In my experience it is an exceptional environment that does not have at least one gossip. I generally say something polite but clear that I do not care to listen to office gossip, and sometimes a gossip will get mad about it. The really toxic environments are the ones I try to avoid.
"If the office snake is after you it’s often because you’ve disagreed with them, done something they perceive as threatening; or think you might expose them. Never doubt they have a reason for going after you whether it’s real, or in their head. Whatever their reason it’s normally aligned with a sinister agenda." Ugh, these kinds of people are exhausting!
Thanks for the interesting article.
Koralee Phillips (author) from Vancouver British Columbia Canada on September 16, 2019:
Hi Carolyn - I love the name you gave her :-). Yes that was a great lesson, thank you so much for sharing your experience. However, I'm sorry you had to go through it.
Sounds like you had a lot of other stuff to deal with too. I hope it's better now.
Carolyn Fields from South Dakota, USA on September 15, 2019:
I have experienced more than one snake during my time in "corporate America."
I had an unsupportive boss, who also took credit for my work AND was a suck-up to higher management.
The worst, in my experience, was the snake who "pretended" to be my friend. We'll call her Sally Sweet. We carpooled to work, she was always super nice to me, and I shared a lot of things with her - as a friend - that I would never say in the workplace. I was just blowing off steam. Boy did I learn my lesson. When we had a downsizing/restructuring - I nearly lost my job because "someone" said I was "sarcastic." I am NEVER sarcastic on the job - but I was sarcastic a few times in my private conversations with Sally Sweet. That bite was hard to take.
My lesson - when you are with coworkers - on the job or even OFF the job - you are being evaluated, and what you say or do will come back to you. Especially when someone sees you as a threat. Sally had a High School education, and I have a Master's Degree. There you have it.
Thanks for this very helpful article. Great job!
Dianna Mendez on April 14, 2018:
I've encountered a few snakes during my career. The gossiper bothered me most and most of the time it wasn't even about me. Good advice on how to handle these types of toxic people.
Koralee Phillips (author) from Vancouver British Columbia Canada on March 24, 2018:
Hi Readmikenow. I'm glad you enjoyed reading my article. Thanks for stopping by.
Koralee Phillips (author) from Vancouver British Columbia Canada on March 24, 2018:
Hi FlourishAnyway. Yes, i get what you mean. Do you still have the article you wrote about her online? If you do I would love to read it. Laid eggs is a great description for the others who followed in her footsteps.
Readmikenow on March 22, 2018:
Excellent article. Every office I've ever worked in has people you described. Makes life very difficult. Good advice. Enjoyed reading this.
FlourishAnyway from USA on March 22, 2018:
Definitely been there. She was really a piece of work, and we both worked in HR. She’s retired now through a workforce reduction and is probably a pair of old snakeskin boots if you know what I mean. Haven’t thought about her in years even though I wrote an article about her. Before she left I think she laid eggs.