Q: A co-worker copies many things I wear and activities I do, and it's making me nervous. She colored and cut her hair the same as mine, wears the same brands and styles, and when asked by co-workers, has told them I am copying her. When she started asking me where I bought things, I told her. Once I saw her copying me, I stopped giving her the information, but her obsession has continued. She asks me detailed questions — what am I doing this weekend and with whom. It's weird and scary, and I don't think I can deal with it much longer, but I'm afraid confronting her could anger her and I don't know what she might do.
A: Since you probably don't want to quit your job, move to a new state and change your name and phone number, you will eventually need to speak to her about her curiosity about your life and activities. If you have evidence she may be a threat, you need to tread lightly. The question then is how can you safely approach her without stirring her anger or potential for revenge. This could be a harmless annoyance by someone who has no social life or social skills, or the prelude to a dangerous situation, depending on how she reacts to being confronted. No professional can provide you with unquestionable instructions on the right way to approach her, because regardless of experience or specialty, professionals may differ on advice. Since you are the only one who knows everything that has transpired, and you alone know your level of fear and discomfort, consider all suggestions, but go with your gut when you talk to her.
Before you reach that point, tell your boss about her behavior, but firmly request that he or she hold off from taking any action. You are simply reporting it for the record. Unless you work at a mental health facility, your boss is not likely to have the psychology background needed to make a decision based on protecting you. Neither will your company's human resource department, as its focus is to reduce the company's liability if anything should happen at work.
Next, seek information from the local police department as to what kind of evidence and examples of her copycat behavior you should take note of. Talk to your personal friends to see if she has contacted any of them, showing them a photo of her in case she has posed as someone else. Your friends' recognition of her in their recent experiences will alert you on her psychopathy and how far she is willing to risk exposure.
Your third contact should be with a mental health professional. Psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, Sarasota, Fla., who has 30 years of counseling women in troubled situations, suggests you make a detailed list of all the copycat has said and done to copy you, including dates, times, places, and verbatim statements she has made to others. If you have a trusted co-worker (one who will not spread gossip or betray your confidence), ask what she has heard from the copycat. If you decide to speak face-to-face with your obsessed co-worker, alert your trusted co-worker of the time and location of your meeting. Choose a location within the workplace confines, such as an open break room.
It's important to approach your copycat respectfully, so first ask if she has a minute to talk. If so, calmly tell her you've noticed she's been dressing like you and even changed her hairstyle to look like yours. Say that you're flattered, but wonder why she is doing this. Then remain silent and wait for her response. Silence is important because people often over-talk when they feel nervous. She may apologize or say she admires you, but if she continues her obsessive behavior, it's time to take your evidence (documentation) and fears to your boss, the HR department and the police. After that, have as little contact with her as possible. Copycat behavior seems to be more common in women, and may be a type of bullying targeted at women who are known to be less confrontational than others.
Email all questions to workplace and life coach Lindsey Novak at [email protected] For more information, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com and follow her on Twitter @TheLindseyNovak and Facebook at Lindsey.Novak.12. For past columns, visit www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.