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:
- Wait it out and hope the episode blows over quietly,
- Arrange a meeting with your boss to discuss it,
- Take the hint and leave before the ax falls, or
- 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.
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.