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7 Ways to Tell if You’re Being “Targeted” at Work

Years ago, I had a coworker who was in a management position, who was facing several obvious threats to her job. It wasn’t that she was incompetent – quite the opposite. She was very good at her job and highly sought after by other employers. But a new department head had been appointed from the outside, and she wanted the friend out. I was aware of a series of obvious attacks, which my friend described as being the result of her being targeted.

What is it when you’re being targeted at work? It’s when your employer or your boss have no reason to fire you, so they set up a series of contrived incidents to degrade your performance, and either create a reason to fire you, or to force you to leave on your own.

When that happens you generally have four choices, each with its own risks and potential benefits:

  1. Wait it out and hope the episode blows over quietly,
  2. Arrange a meeting with your boss to discuss it,
  3. Take the hint and leave before the ax falls, or
  4. Wait until you get fired, and then deal with the consequences from there.

The methods used are sometimes so subtle that you find yourself questioning your own worth and ability. You may even believe that you’re simply being paranoid. Everyone goes through bouts of paranoia at work, but it’s equally likely that you’re being targeted.

How can you know if you’re being targeted at work? Here are some signs. If you’re experiencing several of these in a short space of time, it may be time to consider your options.

1. Your Boss Spends Less Time with You or Seems Irritated Around You

This can be a hard one to determine, if your boss has never really spent much time with you since the time you started your job. But if you notice a decline in personal meetings with- and communication from- your boss, and there’s no obvious explanation for the disruption, this is an excellent clue.

Your boss may be attempting to minimize contact with you, either to reduce his or her dependence on you, or simply to send you a sign that you have fallen from grace. It’s even possible that your boss is creating distance in order to avoid contact in advance of a predetermined firing. There may even be the usual inferences of you’re having a bad attitude, or my favorite, “not being a team player”. Those subtle jabs are usually deeper with meaning than we like to think.

Contrary to popular belief, not all supervisors are comfortable with the termination process. Instead, they’ll often send a series of well targeted hints, in the hope that you get the message and leave on your own. That avoids a messy confrontation that may not reflect well on the boss.

7 Ways to Tell if You’re Being “Targeted” at Work
7 Ways to Tell if You’re Being “Targeted” at Work

2. You’re Not Getting Important Emails

I’m not referring specifically to emails from your boss, but emails in general. If your boss or the higher-ups have taken your name off the organizational chart, then they no longer feel the need to keep you in the loop on important matters.

While you may continue to be copied on the general circulation emails, the number of messages directed specifically to you declines. That can be an indication of reduced responsibility, or a lack of trust.

Whatever the reason for the reduction in communications, it’s a clear sign that you are being targeted for either demotion or termination.

3. Others Seem to Know What’s Going On Before You Do

This sign is closely related to the decline in direct emails. If you notice that other people in the department or the company seem to be aware of important developments before you are, it’s confirmation that events are taking place that you’re specifically being excluded from knowing.

It’s a really bad sign, too.

When it reaches this level, it usually won’t help to ask your boss why you’re being excluded. You’re most likely to get some sort of frivolous explanation, like your name was mistakenly deleted from the email list, it was someone else’s responsibility to let you know, or the ubiquitous “it was an oversight”.

When important information is being disseminated, the important people are always in the loop. If you were in that loop before, and you are now mysteriously absent from it, it’s time to update your resume.

4. There Are an Unusual Number of Closed Door Meetings

One of the situations that I picked up on early in my career in the organizational world, is that an unusual number of closed doors means something’s getting ready to go down.

As an indicator of you being targeted, this is a tricky sign. It could simply mean that there’s a big problem, or a set of problems, that the department or the company are facing. But if those closed-door meetings involve a significant number of your coworkers – but not you – it can be a sign that you’re the subject of those meetings.

I remember the first job that I held after college at a small mortgage company. Closed-door meetings seemed to be the company’s modus operandi.

One day I was standing outside of the closed door of my boss’s office. I made a comment (in jest) to the receptionist who was sitting outside of his door, saying ”Do you think they’re talking about us in there?”

Her face turned serious, and her response shocked me: “If the door is closed, and two or more people are in there, rest assured that they’re talking about you.”

I realize that to most people this would seem like an overly cynical response. But I quickly found out the wisdom of her words. The company was in complete disarray, and the normal procedure for dealing with the litany of problems was for employees to blame their coworkers for whatever was going wrong.

In that particular company, complaints about coworkers behind closed doors were the happy little way that the company operated. Unfortunately, I was often the subject of the closed-door conversations. After less than a year, I decided that I couldn’t take that type of environment, and moved on.

That company was perhaps a bad example of my closed-door theory, only because it was so normal there. But it did tip me off in future work situations, where closed-door meetings are much more infrequent. If you begin seeing a pattern of closed-door meetings, that don’t involve you, and are deemed to be “none of your concern”, it can be a tip-off that you’re being targeted.

5. Your Name Doesn’t Come Up for Important Assignments or a Promotion

This is another potential sign that can go either way. If you haven’t historically been a “go-to person” (that’s one of a select few people necessary in any organization to carry a heavier load than others), this won’t matter. In fact, you might even be relieved.

But if you’re normally one of the go-to people, and important assignments are being handed to other people, or there’s a promotion in the wind and your name isn’t coming up, this can be a significant sign that you’re being targeted for either demotion or execution.

You can confront your boss as to why you’re being passed over, but you may be disappointed at the result. Your boss might use it as another opportunity to send you a hint that you’re on a short-timer list.

6. One or More Important Functions are Taken From You

If you have four major functions at work, and two of them are taken away from you, that’s a bad sign. Unless your employer is clearing your deck so that you can move into a different but equally important (or better) capacity, it could be a sign that your job is being degraded.

This is when it’s important to remember that employers will rarely fire you on the spot for anything short of criminal behavior. Your existence on the payroll is strictly at the pleasure and convenience of your employer. That means that they will only terminate you when it’s convenient for them.

If you have significant responsibilities at work, the employer may gradually reduce the load, and redistribute it to others. This is a targeting process that essentially moves you from being a critical employee to an expendable one. They’re trying to reduce your role to the point where your departure won’t negatively affect workflow in the organization.

This is one of those critical signs that you cannot afford to take lightly. Systematic reduction in your responsibilities is a process of intentionally moving you to irrelevancy.

7. You’re Being Blamed for Problems You Didn’t Cause

This is probably the most obvious sign that you’re being targeted, but one that I think is particularly clumsy and usually executed by the most dysfunctional organizations. That’s because it’s the least subtle warning that your employer is preparing to let you go. It’s an orchestrated attempt to create that “last step” before you’re terminated.

Blame can come in different forms. It could be a decision that a specific assignment or project that you have been given was a failure attributed strictly to you. It could be a group activity that failed, but you are individually blamed for the failure. They could also manufacture a problem that’s a complete fiction.

The Typical Outcome of the Blame Game

It’s rare that you’ll be able to fight your way out of this kind of assault. If it’s intentional, no one in authority will be sympathetic. It’s even possible that one or more of your coworkers has been recruited in the effort. You may be facing The Big Lie, a fabrication in which several people collaborate in the effort. If the situation reaches this level, you are already on the outside looking in.

It’s possible that the named problem is actually your fault. But it’s also possible that it’s someone else’s fault, and the blame is being pinned on you to protect that other person (there’s usually a “protected class” in every organization). But your employer may also be using it as a justification to let you go. It may result in a semi-sympathetic meeting, in which your boss or another superior takes you in for a “heart-to-heart chat”, and advises you that it’s time to move on.

If it comes to that, don’t sit around waiting for Round Two. It’s usually better to leave on your own terms, than to wait until your employer makes the decision for you.

Have you ever felt that you were being targeted at work? What were the specific details, and how did it end up? I suspect that this isn’t as unusual as we like to believe.

( Photo by viZZZual.com )

12 Responses to 7 Ways to Tell if You’re Being “Targeted” at Work

  1. Unfortunately this type of underhanded behavior is endured by many in the workplace. You could be the best employee for job but if you don’t fit in the group dynamics for whatever reasons, performance won’t matter. You see this attitude most often in companies who are on a downhill slide, and the fools become don’t want to upset the status quo of the work environmen.
    You won’t have clues prior to hire on this behavior, if you base research on employee turnover because the majority of employees will be long termed employed but you can tell by the interactions between fellow employees to newcomers by responses to questions on how jobs are done versus actual performance.
    What is the worst part of this problem is the blacklisting of employees who leave after enduring this harassment.

  2. You’re right Maria, this might be amusing except that it has long-term consequences. For example, at that job that I described in the article, I learned after the fact not to use my boss from that job as a reference. Even though we had a good work report, he gave me a bad reference. He referred to me as a ‘nine-to-fiver’. Of course I was! No one can endure conflict day-in and day-out, all day. I’d leave at 5 to get out of Hell. In addition, they were paying me peanuts and I had to keep a second job. I had no time or inclination to hang around past 5, but I was black-listed for what was a completely rational response to a very irrational situation.

    In the long run it didn’t hurt me, since I was well known as a go-to performer. But that brings up another point. Dysfunctional employers tend to stay dysfunctional long after you leave. We can change in a different environment. But organizations seem to be beyond reforming themselves. That’s why it’s almost always best to quietly leave this kind of employer. You also make another good point that mistreatment of employees is most common in companies who are on a downhill slide. They develop little fiefdoms that are more concerned with staying afloat and dealing with imaginary challenges, than actually reforming for the better.

  3. Thanks for listening Kevin– Problem I see is too much for lack of a better wording of sheep thinking to not rock the boat.
    All I ever wanted to do is earn my pay within my required hours without having to take on someone else’s lack of effort as I am getting paid the same as anyone. What I did outside of work is no ones business but mine, hence the separation of work friends and out of work life,
    I would like to see an effective way to deal with this other than opting out of job especially if running the risk of being blacklisted. Some of us really need the money gotten from job and these places also make it harder to get unemployment.

  4. Employers are difficult to deal with in a negative situation. They hold the power of hire and fire, as well as your paycheck, so it’s never a level playing field. I’m actually a bad person to ask because I’m not organizational in any way. But from what I’ve seen, the best way to survive it is to develop a thick skin. I’ve seen people being targeted who just roll with it, and sometimes they survive it. I’ve seen others demoted and still hang around. They seem to have a mental toughness that I don’t – or greater fear.

    What I have learned is that dysfunctional employers seldom clean up their act. You can come back 20 years later, and it will be the same thing, though with different faces. I’ve read that this describes 80% of employers.

  5. Oh my gosh, YES. I’ve had this happen to me and it’s a terrible, sinking feeling. Honestly, the only way I can deal with it is to find a better (and better-paying) job. That’s not a culture you want to be in–ever. Why subject yourself to a job that acts like everyone is in a middle school clique?

  6. Interesting you bring up middle school. It does seem as if a lot of workplaces do revert to school. Unfortunately a lot of adults don’t get far from school emotionally and socially, and it leads to cliques and favoritism. That’s not a problem as long as it doesn’t affect anyone’s job. But if you’re outside the clique, you could be targeted. A lot of it is scapegoating. When employers look to assign blame, they’re careful to look outside the inner circle for perpetrators. And even if you’re innocent, you can be the target of the Big Lie.

  7. I just had to come back and add one more comment to this thread after thinking about situation.
    Yes, we have in real life people who need what I call a good smack of being an ADULT. Perhaps I should blame it on my parents continuing to work at horrid work conditions and continuing to do their job despite all the lazy people around them, but they did it because putting food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads was more important.
    There were many times, I wanted to quit a job because of the attitude of the people I had around me, but those two goals mentioned above kept me going. So I guess I developed what Kevin called a thick skin, which served me well when I finally got promoted after being blacklisted for years at job because promoting me, meant others had to work harder. I think I have forgotten more multi-tasking skills than I remember which I did to motivate myself. But I did learn the power of the word NO. It took a few years to learn but I learned to use it and not feel guilty. e.g. My hours would be cut but everyday they would ask me to stay, so when they wanted to remove me off a day which I got guaranteed time and half, I told them if they did that, it would be on a permanent basis since I would not be available for that day anymore. I never lost that day as a day of work.
    As for these people who try to make life miserable and try to get you out of job–I found it best to be the best as I could at my job by making extremely hard for them to find something wrong with my performance. Remember they can’t fire you for being good at your job, without having to offer you compensation for layoff.

  8. Hi Maria – One of the most outlandish things I’ve ever heard of are “Adulting classes”. Have you ever heard of them? It’s growing because apparently a lot of Millennials haven’t learned how to be adults. Can’t say I blame them. A lot of their parents – Baby Boomers – refused to grow up first. Then there’s TV, that shows people living the good life, but with little in the way of work responsibilities. And we can’t forget the schools, that brainwashed the yunggins to be perpetual students. My feeling is that a lot of people in our society could use some adulting classes. Unlike when I was a kid, not many people see any merit in becoming an adult.

    But you learned to be an adult from your parents. It’s what they were doing when they were working at hard jobs, and putting up with crap because they had a family to support. There are too many people in the workforce who didn’t get that training. They think that compensation is automatic, and work is optional. That means that the real adults have to step up and take up the slack. I’ve always been under the impression that employers know who the real workers are, and who the game players are. Unfortunately, they tolerate the latter, while relying on the former to make it all work. It’s a thankless position to be in if you’re a performer. I’ve also seen too many situations where employers favor the game players at the expense of the performers, perhaps because they’re more interesting – and sensitive – while the performers just soldier on and take whatever nonsense is thrown their way.

    That’s a big reason why I exited the organizational world a long time ago. As the saying goes, “In the land of the insane, the sane man is crazy.” That describes entirely too many employment situations, and I got tired of it.

  9. Thanks Kevin. Lucky you got a great blog outlet to generate income from, some of us are not as prolific in verbal skills and coming from my background I don’t have the guts to develop my own business as I always believe you have to have money to make money as nothing is free.
    Yes there are adulating classes around especially here in New York such as how to have dinner without using technology, or how to do laundry properly, or how to balance a budget. All tools learned by doing chores and participating with others.
    Don’t go blaming just the Baby Boomers as they are actually the grandparents of the present day millennials unless they started families late. I blame it on the tendency to over hover parenting style and pushing the me first tendency, which leads to a non-real perspective of real world.
    I am just glad I am not in California where the ultra-liberal demand everyone (including illegals) get free stuff or they will kill their representatives. Makes New York look better as I can at least still walk up to my representatives and not worry someone will be shooting at them.

  10. You’re right, Maria, I forgot about the hovering parents. And yes, it isn’t just Baby Boomers (of which I’m one), but our generation were the ones who initiating the hovering, and it’s only gotten worse since. My wife and I tried not to hover, but we often think we did too much of it anyway.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I didn’t have the money to start my own business either (I had no choice as my previous career left me in the middle of the Financial Meltdown). If you can find a business that you can run on either your skills or your effort, you often don’t need any money. My family is about to take the plunge into buying and selling. My son and I have done that successfully in the past, and you can get started with less than $100. That’s the only kind of business I’d consider, since businesses that require a lot of capital are also very high risk. I’d much rather create a business from scratch than buy one.

  11. This happened to me too. I had a horrible boss who did not know how to do her job. If you didn’t help her do her job then you got on her bad side. I was one of three managers in the department. I only lasted for two years before leaving for a much better job. I was the 6th manager to leave in two years, yet some how my former boss continued to blame the issues on the managers who left in an attempt to deflect the blame.

    A group of managers who had worked for her filed a code of conduct complaint against at her because of how unethical she was. Corporate HR got involved and assured everyone that retaliation would not be tolerated.

    They did nothing about the issues that were reported and the retaliation was horrible. I had my boss making up lies about my performance in an effort to fire me. I’ve never been written up for anything before in my life.

    It was such a bad situation that effected my health. I considered a lawsuit but in the end as just so grateful to be out of that situation that I didn’t even want to bring it all up again.

    And – from one of your previous blog posts – I ended up moving from Atlanta to New Hampshire and am SO happy that I made the move.

  12. Hi Nikki – The situation you describe is all too common. Both I and my wife have seen it again and again. For reasons that completely mystify me, bad managers seem to have a life all their own. It’s as if the higher-ups don’t care that the bad manager is a complete wreck. Or they know and are complicit. In fact, I have heard of managers being brought in as a “hatchet”. That is, they’re brought in specifically to clean house. Though we’d like to think that the higher-ups would discipline or dismiss the offending manager, in most cases nothing happens. You did the right thing by leaving. No matter what you did, that situation would never have improved.

    I remember you talking about making the move from ATL to NH. I’m glad you like being in NH. We’ve been here for going on three years, and we love it. I realize that more people want to move to the Sun Belt, and for many it works out just fine. They usually go because of warmer weather or cheaper housing. But how much you like a place (or not) really depends on a lot of factors, many of which are not obvious to the casual observer. For me, NH just works better than GA, despite the cold winters. Life just feels better and more stimulating here, and I’ll take that over warmer winters. And I know this sounds crazy, but I just feel more empowered in NH. I think that may be because NH is more non-conformist than Atlanta (which is very conformist), and that just works better for the person who I am.

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