By Eve Tahmincioglu contributor
updated 7/1/2007 4:05:31 PM ET 2007-07-01T20:05:31

Thanks to a prevalence of co-worker conflicts, the workplace is looking a lot like that scene from West Side Story when gang members from the Jets and the Sharks go at each other on the playground.

Many employees can’t seem to get along these days and it’s fostering stress, tension and anything but a productive atmosphere.

Jennifer Conway from Grand Forks, N.D., remembers a co-worker who was always ready to rumble.

"She has assumed I am a moron from day one," she explains. "She gave me responsibilities without any training, then took them away at the first sign of a screw-up." The co-worker also trashed her behind her back, and made up stories about her, sharing them with managers. “She made my work life miserable in so many ways, I can't begin to name them.”

Our moms and dads taught us how to play nice on the playground, but some of us didn’t take those lessons to the workplace.

About 10 percent of workers admit to intentionally making a co-worker look bad or incompetent, according to a recent and Elle magazine survey of more than 60,000 people. And about four out of 10 workers surveyed say they have thought about it. The top reasons for taking a work comrade down? They were incompetent, not a team player or just generally not liked.

Such conflicts lead to stress.

A report by ComPsych, provider of employee assistance programs, found that more than half of U.S. workers are experiencing high stress levels, and for the first time "people issues" have replaced workload as the No. 1 cause of stress.

"New hires have picked up somewhat, which can lead to turf wars led by current employees," said Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych. "At the same time, wages have not caught up with inflation. This can cause workers to feel they are competing for less resources, resulting in tension and interpersonal conflict in the workplace."

No matter the reason, you can’t let co-worker conflict bring you down.

Conway realized that. She went to her bosses but got nowhere in curbing her co-worker’s behavior.

“Since no one was willing to deal with this woman's behavior issues, I gave my two-week notice.  The job market is really tight here, so I decided that it was the perfect time to go back to school so I could get the career I really want.”

She graduates in the fall with a degree in English, and has plans to write nonfiction and teach.

Here are some of your letters:

I am an office manager for a doctor. I have worked for him for 19 years. I am writing about a co-worker. She is the only employee who has worked for him longer than I have. She is extremely passive-aggressive. She dumps work on others that she doesn't want to deal with or that she knows will upset the boss, but is quick to claim credit for doing things that should be my domain. I have kept my mouth shut for the sake of peace in our office. But finally last week, she did something that got me so angry that I let loose on her. There were patients in the reception area that heard it . . . [although] other employees did not.

I live in a small town where good jobs are hard to come by. My boss actually encourages this type of behavior on her part and finds it funny.
— Jeff

Your first problem is you’re feeling powerless, says Gus Stieber with Bensinger DuPont & Associates, a company that provides employee assistance programs. You need to take back control of your own emotions. You can confront your co-worker but address a particular incident not her personality. You can’t change others. You can only control yourself.

Ask yourself, he advises, why now? Why are you so upset about this co-worker that you would blow up at her after all these years working together. “Maybe he’s displaying some of his own passive-aggressive behavior to her,” he surmises. Look at your own pressures from outside the office. Has anything changed?

You do have choices in your life. You can stay and deal with your co-worker directly in a professional way, or you can move out of the small town and find another job.

“When you empower yourself and realize you have a choice you’ll see things differently,” Stieber says.

I am a real estate agent and I work with this woman that I cannot STAND! She is two- faced and backstabbing and she always jumps at an opportunity to belittle me and will go behind my back to take my customers so that I will be made a fool of. She doesn't pull this with anyone else — just me from DAY 1. I'm SICK of her and I don't know what to do. My broker knows of her deceitful tactics, but seems to do nothing, and in some cases he takes her side.

What do I do?
— Tired and Aggravated in Georgia

Backstabbers are rarely focused on just one target, Stieber says. She’s probably doing it to other employees but you are hypersensitive to her behavior.

The best way to deal with a backstabber is to be direct because they tend not to want to deal with people directly.

You have to judge what it’s worth to you. If you escalate the matter and take it to the higher ups there will be consequences, either positive or negative.

The key is knowing what the power relationships are at work, Stieber says. If you complain to a manager but it turns out the employee you’re complaining about is close with that supervisor, you’re in trouble.

I have this dilemma with a co-worker.  She's younger than I and is beautiful without a doubt!  But she's such a B#@!! to me when others are not around.  In front of the bosses she talks to me like she's nice, but the rest of the time she's short and rude to me.  What do you think I should say to her concerning this, because if I go to the bosses, well they won't believe me because the way she behaves when their around is fine.
— Rosie

Kissing up is a popular tactic when trying to climb the ladder.  "They will screw everyone below them and just play up to people above them. It works because people above aren’t always good managers," Stieber says.

You’re complaining about a relationship you have no control over. Tell her you don’t appreciate it when she is rude to you and move on.

If you need to vent about the individual, and there’s nothing wrong with that, do so with family and friends outside of work.

The question is, Stieber adds, why are you working? Be a professional and don’t get emotional. We have to face that co-worker conflict has become a part of today’s workplace. And in some cases managers actually use the conflict to play workers off of each other.

No way around it, this type of behavior poisons the work environment, but you have to decide how sick it’s going to make you.

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