Is Co-Worker's Warning Helpful or Harmful?

By Lindsey Novak

October 3, 2019 4 min read

Q: I work in the very competitive entertainment industry. Competition is expected, but dishonesty also prevails. I am aware of that, but a co-worker keeps warning me to protect everything I do to the point of hiding and locking up everything on my desk. One of his co-workers stole ideas from him — actually sifted through his papers when he was away from his desk. His ideas ended up being taken and attributed to the co-worker who stole them. He had nothing documenting they were his. I understand how upsetting it must have been. It's a hard way to learn that the people you think are your friends are willing to betray you the first chance they get.

The trouble is that once I hear about it, that's enough for me. I appreciate the warning, and I get it. I understand being cautious, but I don't function well in an atmosphere of distrust. I like being able to relax and not feel like I am surrounded by hungry coyotes. How do I tell him I appreciate his warning and take him seriously, but I can't keep hearing about it? It upsets me and deters my drive and motivation to be positive.

A: Though many people think all criticism is negative, forthright conversation can be positive. Many industries encourage competition between employees, especially among creatives and those in sales. Some people justify getting ahead by crossing the line of ethics and honesty. Dishonesty seems to be part of human nature.

It may start with children lying about schoolwork because their parents place undue pressure on them to perform. It can spread to lying about where they are and whom they are with, especially if the children know their parents won't approve and will respond with anger instead of a reasonable reprimand and conversation. It may then advance to stealing because the child doesn't have the money to buy what he or she wants, whether it's to keep up with classmates or feel superior to them — stemming to lacking a value system as well. The workplace is no different than school; people who are not taught ethics and values as children take their lack of character traits into the workplace.

Your co-worker means well by warning you about his misfortune. He is not warning you to be negative but to protect you from experiencing the same disappointment. His experience is not limited to the entertainment industry; what he is really warning you of is the price of letting your guard down by being naive.

Thank him for the serious wake-up call. Tell him you'll remember the lesson when you find yourself tempted to share ideas with others and that you will be careful about leaving papers and other intellectual material on your desk. Your sincere appreciation for the warning will show him you will not forget to take care. If you find him repeating the warning, warmly thank him again, reassuring him you will not forget. Express how sorry you are he experienced that betrayal, but he would be best to move on and take the same care he is recommending to you.

Betrayal is difficult to deal with and to forget, especially when one must continue working with such a person. It may not have made a difference in his workplace, but he may have felt more empowered had he reported the theft to his boss, explaining that it was his own naivete that contributed to having the material stolen. His boss may not have been able to correct the situation, but at least he or she would have been warned of the employee's lack of ethics. A happy resolution is not always possible, but opening up about a negative experience can help a person release the anger and move forward to create greater things.

Email career and life coach: [email protected] with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit and for past columns, see

Photo credit: fancycrave1 at Pixabay

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