Q: I returned from maternity leave five months ago. I now work three days a week but am being subjected to badmouthing from one of my boss's colleagues. I suspect jealousy is at the root of it (she has two young children but works full-time). I never work with her directly but I've found out from my friends that she takes every opportunity to criticise my work and I'm scared my boss will start to believe her. I can't keep working in this toxic environment but I really need this job.
Jeremy Bullmore: I hope you're absolutely certain that these friends of yours aren't inadvertently stirring things up. I'm not suggesting that they're doing it maliciously or even mischievously; just that they may be indulging in a bit of what they see as harmless gossip - which is having a disproportionate effect on you. And once you begin to harbour suspicions of this kind, they can all too easily snowball. More often than not, the deeply unsettling notions we allow to build up in our heads, fuelled by rumour and surmise, turn out to have much less basis in reality.
So, without looking as though you're unduly concerned, do try to get to the bottom of your friends' allegations. There's almost certain to be some foundation for them; but there's a fair chance that it's all a lot less toxic than you've come to believe. Whatever the truth, it's essential that you try to nail it dispassionately.
Then you must trust your boss. Continue to do your job as well as you always have; avoid giving any sign of being rattled; and be secure in the knowledge that, should this woman continue to badmouth you, your boss will soon see the discrepancy between what she tells him and what he observes.
You're scared your boss will fire you. Just remember that no boss is going to fire anyone on the basis of unsubstantiated and malicious comment - the veracity of which he's already beginning to doubt.
The real danger of anxiety such as yours is that it becomes self-fulfilling. It works away at you to such an extent that it begins to affect your performance; and that, of course, would provide exactly the evidence that your ill-wisher (whatever her motives) would most welcome.
Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office? is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.