By Joyce Pellino Crane, Globe Correspondent, 3/14/04
Ereka Vetrini and Paul Fletcher have never met. But the two share a painful bond: both feel they were betrayed by a colleague and lost their jobs as a result.
Vetrini’s betrayal and firing by business tycoon Donald Trump happened in front of millions of viewers tuned into ”The Apprentice,” the NBC reality series in which contestants compete to win a job working for Trump. Fletcher’s took place behind the doors of a Boston area manufacturing firm. But public or private, a workplace betrayal is tough to take.
”I felt he literally backstabbed me,” said Vetrini of TV teammate Bill Rancic, who she thought was an ally. With his own head on the chopping block, Rancic told Trump to fire Vetrini instead of fellow apprentice Nick Warnock during a recent episode of the hit show. Trump fires someone each week after seeking opinions from other candidates facing his ax.
Workplace betrayals have been a hot topic around the watercooler ever since ”The Apprentice” began airing on Thursday nights and shone its bright lights on the behind-the-scenes struggles that occur daily in the nation’s workplaces.
Specialists say such duplicity can result from jockeying between cutthroat careerists for a hot project or a big promotion as happens on ”The Apprentice.” But in tough economic times, when job insecurity is rampant, treachery can be triggered when layoffs are in the air or blame gets hurled because sales are weak. In all cases betrayers are motivated by self-gain, such as the hope that if a colleague is eliminated, a promotion will be forthcoming or the ax will fall on someone else.
”That’s where the backstabbing is going to come into play,” said management consultant Gilda Carle of Yonkers, N.Y. ”People want what other people have. Some people are far more jealous because they don’t understand their own value. Unfortunately, they spend their time stabbing other people in the back instead of expanding their own growth.”
Professional relationships can sour rapidly when a company is under pressure, say specialists. A trusted colleague today may be a cloaked enemy tomorrow, particularly if his or her job is at stake. Job security was rated number one in importance to employees — ahead of benefits, workplace communication, work/life flexibility, and compensation — in an online survey conducted in 2002 by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. The survey showed that 65 percent of 604 respondents considered job security as very important, and 30 percent considered it important.
”The thing you can always trust people to do is to take care of themselves first,” said Los Angeles business consultant BJ Gallagher. ”They’ll take care of you if they can. But if push comes to shove and they have to make a choice, they’ll take care of themselves.”
Fletcher, who spent almost a year working as a quality manager in a local manufacturing business, found this out the hard way. Fletcher said he had to interact with a production supervisor who had been with the company for over 30 years. The two were workplace equals and got along well in the beginning, he said, but the supervisor became critical of Fletcher and the relationship soured.
Fletcher was terminated by the company in January for tardiness, he said, but not before co-workers discovered a notebook kept by the production supervisor of the arrival and departure times of Fletcher and other employees. Fletcher said he suspects his colleague was asked to snitch on workers by a division manager who was under pressure to cut costs. He acknowledged he’d been tardy a few times due to a long commute but said he had stayed late many nights to work.
”We spoke every day,” said Fletcher of his former colleague. ”We spoke about personal things in our lives. How could you turn me in when we were friends?”
To avoid being blindsided by betrayal, an employee needs to have his or her interpersonal antenna up, said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an outplacement firm. ”You have to really understand where you stand with each person and you have to constantly be out there repairing relationships that have gone awry,” said Challenger.
There’s a three-step process to dodging the knife, said Tim Ursiny, author of ”The Coward’s Guide to Conflict” (Sourcebooks Inc.). Try to understand the other person’s perspective, connect with him by reflecting back his emotion and his content, and join with the person so that in some way you’re both on the same side of the table.
”The accountable person faces the problem, owns part of it, then goes to solving it,” said Ursiny, an executive coach and psychologist based in West Chicago.
Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth also faced Trump’s firing squad and lost earlier this month but credits herself with holding it together even when she was being scapegoated by her teammates.
”When I was under pressure, I got very executive,” said the image consultant, college professor, and lobbyist. ”I followed the business book to a T, using proper etiquette.”
But Stallworth acknowledged the personality flaw that took her down. ”Instead of focusing on interpersonal relationships, I was focused on the task side of it,” she said. ”I should have borrowed some of the ”Survivor” tactics and formed alliances.”
But Challenger noted that when Vetrini attempted to form an alliance on ”The Apprentice,” it backfired. ”She was working at trying to negotiate her survival. She had not built strong enough ties beforehand with Bill to hold that deal together.”
Vetrini, who said she and Rancic remain friends, is still smarting from that pivotal moment in the boardroom. ”I’m so completely disappointed in him,” she said. ”I couldn’t believe he was even going there.”
Trump’s boardroom leaves people feeling off-center and unsafe, Gallagher noted. Competition carried to extremes can be ”deleterious,” she said.
”That’s when people start backstabbing, backbiting, sabotaging,” Gallagher said. ”Any human being, unless they’re Ghandi or Moses will go there. They’ll turn into the territorial animals they are.”
Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at email@example.com.