Dealing with Frenemies

A “good” frenemy isn’t hard to find: From "The Hills’" Heidi Montag and Lauren Conrad to the person in your life who says, when you arrive dressed to the nines, “It must be so liberating when you don’t care about what you’re wearing.” These individuals—enemies disguised as friends—also can be found in the workplace.

Indeed, some people are so competitive on the job that they’ll do just about anything to get ahead. And few things can wreak havoc at work like a colleague who seems friendly but secretly tries to make you look bad. What do you do when you find you have a frenemy at the gate? Following are some tips:

Call their bluff. A frenemy’s behavior can often catch you off guard. For example, say you find out a new designer you’ve trained and taken out to lunch took full credit for a project in which you did half the work. Your best course of action in such a circumstance is to have a private, straightforward conversation with him or her. Tell the person exactly how you feel and listen to the response. Is the designer genuinely apologetic or defensive? Even though confronting the coworker may not change his or her way of operating, it will let your frenemy know you’re not an easy target.

Remain professional.
If you’ve been burned by someone, it may be tempting to give the person a taste of his or her own medicine. But try to behave in a professional, tactful manner while also keeping your guard up. As with gossip or office politics, it’s better to remain above the fray as much as possible. If you get involved in a tit-for-tat game, you can damage your credibility.

Clarify your role. When working with a frenemy, draw clear lines between duties. For example, if you’re working on a website redesign, be sure each of you is assigned specific pages and tasks. Then document your areas of responsibility and e-mail them to him or her (and your manager) so there is no confusion. This also will make it harder to for your frenemy to take credit for your ideas.

Overcommunicate. Have you ever had a client who, two months into a project, tells you that you never told him about a crucial cost even though you know you mentioned it many times? You suddenly wish you’d been more diligent about providing regular, formal updates and saving all your e-mails. Approach a frenemy like you would this challenging client: overcommunicate and overdocument.

Speak up at team meetings about your areas of responsibility and provide regular, written updates to those you report to; this way, if a frenemy stretches the truth about his or her involvement, you can confidently point out the discrepancy. Clear, direct communication also makes it more challenging for anyone else to question which ideas and contributions are yours.

Emphasize collaboration.
Even frenemies can sometimes work well together. A large company, for example, might ask its broadcast, interactive and promotional agencies—all competitors—to collaborate on an international product launch. Borrow a page from this playbook and always focus on how you and a frenemy can collaborate on a common cause (the client, your team). For the sake of the success of a project, emphasize the importance of putting any differences aside.

A last piece of advice: Make sure you aren’t creating a competitive atmosphere with your own actions. Subtle behaviors and attitudes—appearing like you know more because you’ve been at the firm a year longer than a colleague, or assuming you should be awarded a corner office because you brought in a new client—can make an enemy out of a work friend.

While you can’t control your frenemy’s actions, you can be a straight shooter yourself—and cover your bases by documenting your successes. An added bonus of doing this is that it forces you to conduct a little internal PR: By letting people know what you’re working on, you can increase visibility and gain recognition for your accomplishments, despite your frenemy’s efforts.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.