What to Do When Your Coworker Catches You Criticizing Them

3 min read
Jan 27, 2017

caught red-handed

Awk-ward! You’ve just been venting about someone at work to somebody else when you realize the subject of your complaint has heard. Every. Word. You had no idea, and now, you’re so embarrassed. How do you keep working with this person?

It’s not that you didn’t mean what you said — about their work habits and attitude, for example — so you can take comfort in the fact that at least you were saying something that somebody should say. It’s just that if you had intended to confront this person directly, you would have. And it’s not really your place to tell someone else how to do their job anyway. But now there it is — it’s all out there.

Recently, New York magazine’s The Cut section received an Ask a Boss question about just this situation. Columnist Alison Green’s response contains solid advice for anyone who finds themselves in a similar predicament. Many of us have. So, what do you do when you get caught red-handed complaining about someone?


The Next Steps

The most basic thing you have to decide is whether to talk to your victim about what they heard, or just let it ride. There’s discomfort ahead in both cases, but Green suggests that having one difficult conversation now beats having the bad feelings hanging in the air indefinitely. Even if you’re not absolutely sure you’ve been overheard, it’s still the more proactive, constructive response.

Another important thing to consider is that the embarrassment and discomfort you feel at being caught this way is just half the story — it can’t have been any fun to overhear your conversation, either. Trying to help your victim out of this terrible feeling you created is the least you can do.

So when you talk to the person, you’ll be taking ownership of what happened, which is the grown-up thing to do. Assuming that what’s been overheard was a valid work problem and not just interpersonal shade, you can (belatedly) apply some sensitivity to try and turn the mishap in a constructive direction.

Green offers a script you could try, modifying it with your situation’s specifics and your own words:

“I want to apologize to you. I think you may have overheard a conversation the other day where I was complaining about some projects you were involved in. I was blowing off steam, but it’s no excuse. The reality is, I’ve been frustrated when we’ve worked on projects together and I felt that I ended up with more than my share of the work. But I should have talked with you directly about my frustrations rather than talk to someone else about it.”

Forever Hold Your Peace?

The alternative, of course, is not saying anything. While you avoid an unpleasant conversation this way, there’s not much good that can come out of letting things ride. If the person thought of you as an ally, they’ll feel betrayed, if not, they may come to feel bad about their work, or they may be angry and write you off permanently as a jerk. None of these is a welcome outcome.

It does need to be said here that even your most sincere attempt to fix things may fail, and the person may just be mad at you forever. The important thing, though, is that you honestly tried to make things right. We can’t always control what happens, but we can control how we respond.

At this moment, the last thing you want to be told is that it would have have been better to find an appropriate channel for your criticisms than doing what you did. So we won’t say anything.

In any event, venting is a normal human response to frustration. We all need to do it at times, so don’t beat yourself up about it too much. Just try and fix what you’ve broken and then move on. More discreetly.



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