Workplace frenemy: the insinuating bully

image from the novel by Megan Crane

We get mail (well, OK:  pony express) here at HQ.  From our mailbag today is a savvy analysis of a very special kind of bully.  Fans of Sex and the City (the TV show) will recognize the word “frenemy”–an enemy who acts like (and may actually believe) ze’s your friend.  An anonymous correspondent writes,

There is a kind of bullying that I haven’t seen discussed before:  the frenemy. This is something a sociopath colleague has worked to perfection. He provides inside information things that as an assistant professor you’re not supposed to get, he gives “advice” that’s only in your best interest, he warns you about others who are out to get you, he vows to “defend” you when other people try to bully you, etc. (Needless to say, there are disturbing hints that behind your back he is doing nothing of the sort.)  At the same time, of course, he makes it clear how dependent you are on him: his patronage, his good graces, etc. There was/is a double effect in this kind of “information banking” style of bullying; because it’s kept secret (and is based in many ways on the fact that it is secret), other people in the department are often unaware of what’s going on. To this day I think that some of the senior faculty in our department have no idea that this individual has hazed every single junior member of our department at some point.   

Have you ever had a frenemy at work?  I recognize the type described here.  You know hir–ze approaches you shortly after the faculty retreat at the beginning of the year and invites you out to lunch.  Ze tells you all about the other finalists for your job, and reassures you that you were so very much better than those other pretentious losers.  Ze then warns you who you need to watch out for–because although most of the department are very happy that you took the job, there are others who are not so impressed.  And this person, your frenemy, is going to watch out for you.  Aren’t you the lucky one! 

Your frenemy will tell you what people are really saying about you in tenure and promotion committee meetings–stuff that doesn’t make it into your annual review letter, which is always very positive and says that you’re on track to win tenure–but ze says you should know what people really think of you nevertheless.  Ze will warn you darkly about trusting anyone else in the department–ze knows, because ze’s been treated badly by them.  Ze will listen sympathetically to your frustrations as a junior faculty member–and will collect any and all information you volunteer about your hopes, dreams, and love life.  Ze will remind you how much you owe hir–ze will expect proof of your loyalty.  If not this year, then someday.

Oh, you know hir, too?  (Does this sound like a Joyce Carol Oates novel yet?)  Readers, do you have any advice for our colleague, or for others who are dealing with their own frenemies?  Talk amongst yourselves–I’m so skeeved out that I have to go take another shower.

And on another note:  We Don’t Like Ike.  To all of our friends and readers in Houston and elsewhere in East Texas, stay safe and dry this weekend as the storm bears down on y’all.  We’ll be thinking of you–let me know if you’ll need the guest room at Historiann HQ in case of evacuation.

0 thoughts on “Workplace frenemy: the insinuating bully

  1. This frenemy type of creature you describe could also function that way with tenured colleagues. While assistant profs are more vulnerable than the tenured, all are potential victims of the strange power plays of The Frenemy, now playing at departments nationwide.


  2. I think you’re right, Rad. But we hope that by the time we’re tenured, we’re a little bit wiser about the ways of the world, and a little more confident about making our own judgments about whom to trust. Frenemies are especially insidious when they glom onto the new hires.


  3. I TA-ed a class once with a frenemy. We were allowed to create the assignments for a portion of the grade. She demanded a certain assignment, and encouraged me to grade a certain way. Everything seemed so rational and clear. We would coordinate our efforts and ensure the grading was equivalent for the students in each of our grading groups.

    Except nothing worked out that way. She became friends with her students. She gave them test answers. She graded them more easily than I did [despite agreeing to a rubric beforehand]. She even told me she defended me to her students when they said offensive things about me. I had some problem students who were polluting the class, and she seemed so supportive and encouraging.

    It wasn’t until the semester ended that I realized I had a knife in my back. She spoke about me to the department chair without informing me. She had extensive conversations with her student-friends about me. She re-arranged the rubric on the papers she graded to ensure her students scored higher than mine. She even awarded extra credit despite not being told it was appropriate by the prof in charge.

    In the year to follow, I found out she was a pathological liar, she became “friendly” with a professor in the department who looked upon her as dating material [which said a great deal about that prof as well as her], and she soon alienated most of the grad students and professors who started to see through her superficially friendly facade. But the damage had been done.

    I never considered her a bully before, but she sure was a frenemy! But I do know this: that school/program was not a healthy place to be. Sadly, it wasn’t even the worst grad program I was ever affiliated with.


  4. Definitely a frenemy–at the start of your story, I didn’t know if she was supervising faculty or a fellow grad TA. I take it she was the latter.

    What’s with the befriending of the students? Strange and lacking in judgment and boundaries–but, I suppose that that’s intrinsic to the frenemy identity.


  5. Ick. The quoted material is a textbook description of battering —- flattery, attempts to isolate and keep the victim confused and reliant on the abuser — the next thing you need is outbursts of irrational jealousy followed by violence.

    What does it say when this is happening in a work environment?



  6. Right, Sisyphus–exactly. This is why Prof. Zero’s comment many months ago was so spot on. She asked why do we blame victims of domestic violence if they DON’T immediately leave, whereas we counsel victims of workplace bullying that they have some meaningful control over the situation and should work harder to be nicer and take the bullies out to lunch more often? That was kind of a lightbulb moment for me.

    The relevant linked post and discussion is here.


  7. Oh, she was a co-TA. In fact, she was my junior; I was in the PhD program whereas she was in the Master’s program.

    And the “befriending” her students was *very* inappropriate. She failed to see the problem, and often defended her position saying they were seniors so it was ok. We were TAing an intro course! Were they seniors for 2 years?


  8. Commentator “bipolar2” from a related thread said:

    “Why do such people remain in positions of authority? It takes moral courage to oppose them.”

    This is true: moral courage, and also you have to be aware enough of and articulate enough about what is going on to be able to see it what it is. The thing is that many victims end up worn down, thinking it is their fault, or are told it is by HRM, and academics have many ways of making excuses for each other and covering things up. (Note, for example, how many students who broach sexual harassment complaints are shut up by administrations if, or as long as, the perpetrator is making the university look good in some other way?)

    Everyone likes Sutton’s book _The No Asshole Rule_ but I think it is limited. For the model to work in academia everyone would have to be mentally healthy enough to know what an “asshole” is, and nobody could be “Machiavellian” enough to think they could turn the a**hole’s behavior to their own good.

    However it is, I suppose, as good a place to start as any.


  9. It’s bad out here in my department, not the French Department but the Frenemy Department. Beyond wailing in empathy here, the only thing I can recommend is to starve the frenemies: they feed on information, so when they cozy up and play their little faux-intimacy games, be just as cozy and friendly in *tone* but don’t give an inch, a smidge, a dustball of real or meaningful information. OK, well, maybe a dustball.

    Example: Fran Frenemy gushes after the weekend, “HI, Britomartis! I saw you out at Fabulous Restaurant with a very handsome man—-who WAS that?” This is the time you absolutely do not in any dream tell Fran that he is the new love of your life, you think you might be looking for a couples hire on the next job market, you’re worried about his financial situation, you think his children like you but you’re worried about getting involved with a probably-too-recently-divorced guy… What you say is, “OH, yes, Fran, isn’t Fabulous a great restaurant? I had the shrimp scampi, which was really good and garlicky; what did you have? Do you go there often? Blah blah meaningless uninformative (OK secretive) blah blah blah.” Any time Fran seeks information under the guise of intimacy, divert, deflect, dive for cover.

    If she pushes you too hard, you can push back a little: “Hey, I never kiss and tell! All that’s private—Let’s change the subject. Do you play tennis?” Ask the frenemies’ opinions, never offering your own; nod thoughtfully and say things like, “hmmm, interesting” or “wow, that’s heavy, what makes you think so?” or “I’ll have to think more about that.”

    This slipperiness, by the way, drives them mad. I am right now watching the convulsive info-starvation throes of the big department bully aka frenemy. It’s fun in a sick way, but even if it weren’t, it would be necessary self-protection. Just don’t delude yourself that you can have a real or meaningful conversation with these people. Beware, all! Please send success stories and strategies…


  10. Thanks for your further thoughts, Prof. Zero and hysperia–I wish I could have been in Montreal this summer!

    Britomartis, I think you’ve hit on the exact right strategy. It sounds exhausting, though, keeping the hounds at bay like that. I’m sorry that you find yourself cornered so frequently–I hope you’ve got good friendships to sustain you outside of your work environment.

    I think it would be very difficult to feel that you had to conceal so much of yourself and your life to keep yourself safe. It’s almost like being in the closet, or keeping other similarly large secrets.


  11. The Whens of Higher Education

    When I interviewed for my first tenure-track faculty position at a state university, the department chair abused his position by housing me in a funky bed & breakfast owned by his aunt. There was no sign, just a spare room in their old home, with cockroaches. Two or three other finalists were similarly housed.

    When I took the job as an untenured assistant professor, two or three senior male faculty in the department were dating undergraduates (unknown to me), some in their classes. Three were divorced in a short period. One of them told me about it when I apologized for not introducing myself to his Aspouse@ at a department party.

    When I said I thought faculty dating students in their classes was an unprofessional abuse of the power relationship between faculty and students, I was assigned by the department chair to teach a second consecutive semester on a campus 20 miles from my office, and was not invited to social gatherings of the department for several years.

    I=d been told when hired that faculty would have to teach on that campus no more than once per year, but then was told Anobody else wants to do it.@ Later I found nobody else had been asked. I was, after all, the most junior member of the department. I understood I’d been sent to Siberia.

    When the department chair accepted release time for being chair, and assigned himself a teaching overload for offering a regular course load, the administration negotiated a provision in the faculty collective bargaining agreement prohibiting such actions.

    When it came time for me to apply for tenure and promotion, the same department chair, a tenured full Professor, denied me secretarial assistance to finish preparation of two books for which I had contracts, saying she was already committed to prepare a book for him.

    When I questioned his priorities, he said I should spend my grant money paying his secretary to work after hours, although the grant was for travel and research expenses, not secretarial assistance.

    When I asked the secretary if she wished to work for extra compensation after hours, she didn=t produce the work, saying she was too tired from working on the chair=s book. Ultimately I had to prepare both manuscripts on my old 80286 computer.

    When we had a post-tenure review of the department chair, I found he had published less when promoted to full Professor than I had published in graduate school.

    When I suggested the chair=s term should be limited to six years, the chair opposed it. He had already served eight years.

    When a majority of my department agreed the chair should serve a limited number of terms, the term-limited chair accepted an administrative position outside the department. The six years he served in that position were some of the best of my career.

    When a subsequent department chair misplaced all semester teaching evaluations for all faculty in the department, I was elected chair in his place.

    When I created a departmental newsletter for students and mailed it to alumni, the former chair criticized the effort as a waste of paper and printing expense.

    When I identified transfer equivalents for all departmental courses at the other campuses in the state university system, the advising office was ecstatic. Administration requests to previous chairs had produced nothing.

    When a student organized complaints about his teaching by five other students in his class and I defused the situation, the former department chair pretended nothing happened.

    When I created a university chapter of the national disciplinary honor society, the former chair said only Ayou be the advisor.@

    When I defended one of his courses against a duplicative course offered in a campus interdisciplinary program, but taught by faculty at an unaccredited Acollege@ in England, the former department chair said Athanks, I guess.@

    When I became chair of the department, there were no women or minorities in it. When I left the position six years later, the department included two women and one ethnic minority member in tenure track positions.

    When I pointed out it was possible for students to graduate without ever taking an upper-level course, the department decided to require more lower-level courses.

    When I proposed we could better serve the credential needs of students by creating certificate concentrations within the major, I was accused of seeking Aprivilege@ for my courses. No matter that my proposal for several concentrations included some in which I would offer only one or no courses, and would benefit others in the department more than I.

    When my three terms as chair were done, the previous chair was back from his administrative assignment and was reelected unopposed. No other tenured faculty wanted it.

    When I read the department chair=s vitae in a post-tenure review, it appeared he was principal author of publications which, when I found them in the library, identified him as second or third author. One of them appeared to be written entirely by someone else in a different discipline.

    When I had met expectations for promotion to Professor, the peer committee tried to change those expectations during my post-tenure review the year before promotion.

    When I said I would file a grievance against changing the standards for my promotion, the department chair orchestrated complaints by other faculty against me, falsely saying I had threatened to vote against the tenure and promotion of one, and to sue the others.

    When I questioned the lackluster performance of a do-nothing department chair during his post-tenure review, he said being chair was merely a perk of his position, and he had done everything I had done as chair, before I had done it. Expressing a revisionist view of history, he tried to take credit for my accomplishments.

    When I applied for promotion to Professor, votes for tenure and promotion of one faculty and sabbaticals for two others–including the chair–were strategically scheduled in the same meeting before my application was considered. They wanted my vote before deciding my fate.

    When a departmental meeting was held to consider my promotion, the chair portrayed my publications in a false light (a violation of my Constitutional right to privacy, more serious than slander), ignoring external reviews by luminaries in my field and making false claims about disciplinary ethical standards, in an attempt to block my promotion. Apparently the chair did not care for faculty who published more than he did.

    After a nasty struggle that threatened my career and the reputation of the university, involving a provost intent on stifling scholarship–and legal counsel–I was promoted. Later, the same scholarship received a national book award. No apologies were ever forthcoming from anyone.

    When a new chair took office, she removed everything from department bulletin boards and announced she would determine what could be posted: without concept of free speech.

    When I sent out email messages to selected colleagues at other universities announcing a new book publication, a vice president of IT (and chum of the stifling provost) accused me of illegal spamming. At this university one should keep ones scholarship secret, lest the reputation of the school increase.

    When I=m asked by promising students if the academic life is as good as it seems at first glance, what am I to tell them?

    If I had known it would be like this before I chose this profession, would I have made a different decision? Knowing all this, why would anyone chose the Aacademic life@ in higher education?

    I might have been happier as a brick layer, or building the successful business I started as an undergraduate and gave up to go to graduate school. Certainly I would be wealthier now, but probably would not have published as many books and journal articles.

    Now, nearing the end of my career, I find myself asking: AWhy did I do this?@ Is it so hard to find ethics, common sense, and collegiality in a university?

    Myrvyn Emrys is a pseudonym used for obvious reasons by a faculty member employed at a large state university in New England.


  12. Historiann, you are describing a so-called “friend” I had at my previous job to a “T”. I almost wonder if you had been a fly on the wall throughout my entire “friendship” with this individual. It is really quite eerie how you’ve given a play-by-play of everything that happened to me with my bully-friend. I just about had a PTSD flashback as I was reading this.

    In short, I was junior (and a woman), and he was senior. We were both minority faculty in a college with very few minority faculty, and so we bonded on that at first. We became very close very quickly and spent much of our social time together from the day I started my job.

    I eventually found out he was doing all of the things you listed above. He alienated me from other people in the department by telling me they were saying bad things about me. He told me about the dirty details of my hire and the fights the search committee had over it (and info about the other candidates, of course). He told me he was single-handedly responsible for having gotten me the job. He told me that jealous senior faculty were saying nasty things about me behind my back and sabotaging me.

    Well, you can predict how this story ends. It turns out that he was the one spreading horrible rumors about me all along and stabbing me in the back. It turns out that not only was he not defending me in ways a senior faculty member should defend a junior one, he was actually the one who I needed protection from.

    As traumatic as that “friendship” was for me, I believe it had the higher purpose of teaching me an important lesson so that I don’t make the same mistake again.


  13. a non-mouse, thanks for stopping by to comment–I’m sorry that my post may have caused disturbing flashbacks! It’s particularly painful when it seems like you have a lot of shared interests with your frenemy. But, this is probably more common than not–otherwise, there is little pretext for intimacy, so it makes sense that a frenemy would approach a junior faculty member under the guise of “it’s us two against the white majority,” and/or “I share your feminist values, we have to change the system to make it better for other women” and/or “as the only other out gay man in this department, I want you to know that I understand what you’re going through,” etc.

    You don’t say if you’re still working in the same environment, but I hope you’re someplace far, far away from that guy, and that you’ve found other truly supportive friends (on the faculty of your college, and in your community.) EDIT–sorry, I see now that this story is from your first job. Good for you for escaping! And, while there is no excuse for being treated that way, as you say, there are lessons learned that benefit you now.


  14. a non-mouse, you just described the executive officer of the department where I’m a grad student, only her version was “us females have to stick together”. She’d dole out the limited amount of money for research assistantships, inviting guest lecturers, etc. and then sabotage your efforts.

    My strategy was three-fold: I got a private sector job that allowed me to walk away from the financial blackmail, I refuse to speak to her or even acknowledge her existence (works wonders for information-starving!), and have let colleagues/faculty know that IMHO if cannibalism ever becomes a path to career advancement, they should start taking head counts.


  15. Nikola–good for you. Economic security is always the best insulation against bullies. I’ve noticed that bullies fix on the vulnerable–especially unmarried women–perhaps because they think they’ll be easier to push around because single women are financially as well as emotionally on their own.

    Freezing out a bully may not be an option for most people–if you can do it and get away with it, then that’s great. But, others may have to put on a smiley-face mask…


  16. So true! I was a young, unmarried woman straight of out grad school who had just moved to a strange city where I knew no one, and my “friend” just glommed onto me. I was so naive back then.

    Thank you for listening and for being so empathic.


  17. No problem, a non-mouse. What are random strangers on the internets for? 😉

    I feel very strongly about the immorality of bullying, and will continue posting on this subject. It’s shocking to hear all of your stories about wasted time and talent. One would think that universities as workplaces would wise up when they consider how much of people’s time and energy are consumed by bullies.


  18. Frenemies do not necessarily have to be Faculty. We have frenemies in the form of Assistant Vice Chancellors, that fancy themselves to be part of Faculty.

    The AVCs have access to $$$, invite you to lunches, etc., want you to confide in them regarding any problems you are having with certain Deans, then they turn the tables on you.


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