Who’s Your Office Nemesis? How to Maintain Healthy Hatred at Work

Jennifer is not her real name, but she really is an architect in her late 20’s in a midsize architecture firm in Manhattan, and she really is looking to find that someone special at work, and she won’t settle for any old guy with just bad breath or suspiciously stained trousers.

“I’m looking for someone with serious character flaws,” she said, “a deeply irritating personality and some particularly disgusting hygienic habits. I don’t think just body odor would inspire hate. I think it has to be more than that. I’m not that superficial.” Jennifer is trying to find what she thinks is lacking in her life: an Office Nemesis. A workplace archenemy. A reason to get up in the morning.

Currently nemesis-less, Jennifer may well be in the minority in Manhattan, a town that hates with more vigor and gusto than it loves. And what about love? Leave it at home! Heap it on the standard poodle! Shower it on an overbearing mother! Every person in Manhattan who has ever traded stocks, designed garments or even worked at a weekly newspaper knows that the office is a bloody battlefield, and nothing gets the juices flowing more than the smell of Wite-Out and napalm in the morning. Hate is fun, and a nemesis–after the Greeks’ goddess of retributive justice–allows you to focus your negativity. Sabotage their work! Bad-mouth them to co-workers! Or go to http://www.nemesis.com, plug in their street address and see what would happen if you dropped a 25-megaton nuclear bomb on their house.

It should be noted that Jennifer has had the pleasure of hating someone in her office before, and as she sees it, better to have hated and lost than never to have hated at all.

Not that anybody in this town needs to be reminded to hate. Notable stories abound: When they co-anchored ABC Evening News in the 70’s, Harry Reasoner hated Barbara Walters. More recently, Ms. Walters has allegedly hated Diane Sawyer. Not to be outdone, Ms. Sawyer allegedly hates her former partner on Prime Time Live , Sam Donaldson, even if he did have cancer. Former New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal hated his successor, Max Frankel. Mr. Frankel wrote about it in his autobiography; Mr. Rosenthal replied, to the Israeli paper Ha’Aretz , that Mr. Frankel’s book was like “a dog shitting on pavement.” The list goes on: Bryant Gumbel and Willard Scott; Time Warner chief executive Gerald Levin and the man who used to hold that job, Nicholas J. Nicholas Jr.; Newman and Jerry Seinfeld … Even during the coverage of John Kennedy’s death, Time magazine couldn’t resist retelling the oft-told tale of the scuffle between Mr. Kennedy and his pugilistic office nemesis, George magazine co-founder Michael Berman.

Or how about newly enlightened office hater, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani? In the past, Mr. Giuliani hated his police chief, William Bratton, and his schools chancellor, Ramon Cortines. But the Mayor drove them out too soon: In order to reap the real rewards from a nemesis relationship, it is important not to terrorize the nemesis to the point they get fired or quit. But everybody can change, even the Mayor: Mr. Giuliani began hating Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew last winter, but Mr. Crew is still on the job, a testament to Mr. Giuliani’s desire to milk the hate for as long as possible. Mr. Crew’s continued annoying presence may indeed be the reason for the Mayor’s recent peppiness.

Back to our Jennifer. Her previous nemesis started work shortly after she did, a male architect hired at approximately the same level. He sat directly behind her. She was immediately bugged by his condescending arrogance. “He had nothing to base it on!” she said, brushing off the suggestion that there was perhaps a buried, unconsummated passion between them. “He was unattractive, just plain old ugly ,” she said. “He had weird skin.”

So what was it about him, exactly? Jennifer said it was a personal-space issue. “I think the whole genesis of the nemesis thing for me is this 90’s open-office-environment problem. We all work in bays in open offices, and just the physical proximity of working so close to somebody is enough to drive you insane,” she said.

It didn’t take long for her hate to start welling up. “When I would get off the phone, he’d make comments on my phone conversations: If I was looking for a restaurant in midtown, I’d get off the phone and he’d make a suggestion,” she said. And he was loud. “He couldn’t keep his voice down when he was talking about a project,” she said. “He’d spin around in his chair and face me while he was talking on the phone. We sat back to back, and he’d spin around so the words were coming directly into my ears!”

Small things became magnified: the shoes he wore every single day of the week, the same lunch he ate day after day. “It smelled,” said Jennifer, who refused to identify either the food or the shoe style, insisting that those two details would immediately give the nemesis’ identity away in the architectural community.

If her nemesis was talking loudly on the phone, she would snarl and stalk out of the work area. If they were leaving at the same time, she would wait in her office until he was safely on an elevator. “Yeah, I’d mourn him if he died,” she said. “But if he got shit-canned? I’d put up a banner.”

Jennifer said she got a lot out of her hate-based relationship. “It’s a good way to curb bad office habits,” she said. “He taught me not to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, not to speak so loud, just shit like that. I learned some big dos and don’ts. I could just use it as an outlet, and it also made everybody in the office seem that much more likable, because anyone else who could be sitting behind you would be so much better than this person. It sheds a nice light on everyone else.

“It’s actually a healthy thing to have a nemesis in the office,” she said. “I’ve been urging my friends to find nemeses.”

Another case of healthy nemesizing can be seen in the Presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore. Just about the time the pundits had declared Mr. Gore’s bid for the White House to be sputtering, he did something that proved that neither he nor his candidacy were dead. In an inspired move, Mr. Gore brought ad man Carter Eskew into the campaign fold as one of the so-called “message gurus,” to work alongside Mr. Eskew’s former mentor–and current red-hot nemesis–Bob Squier. Their mutual contempt, of course, will add a much needed dose of energy to the campaign.

Dr. Harvey Hornstein, a professor of psychology at Columbia University who wrote Brutal Bosses and Their Prey: How to Identify and Overcome Abuse in the Workplace , admitted that a nemesis can be healthy. “I focused on the cons of that situation, but there are benefits,” Dr. Hornstein told The Observer as he toweled off from a dip in his Connecticut pool. “It stretches you. It causes you to think about things you might not have otherwise thought about, either because you experience these people as competitors, or they’re sort of lying in wait for you to make an error, because for whatever reason they punish you for errors. So you stretch yourself to find ways of avoiding the punishment or winning in the game of competition. It may, in that sense, create innovation. Not only does it cause you to put in more effort, but, oddly enough, they may be the reason you find skills and abilities in yourself that you didn’t know existed.”

And there’s always the chance to relive some childhood traumas via your nemesis. “People tend to re-create in the workplace the family situation,” said psychiatrist Karen Gilmore. “There are hierarchies and pecking orders, so transference [in the office] is a commonplace finding. People project feelings onto their boss that they’ve had about other people in authority positions in their lives, like fathers or big brothers, so you’ll see sort of unprofessional reactions, because it’s a re-creation of something else.”

“In terms of nemeses, it often has to do with sibling rivalries, though it sometimes doesn’t mean the same thing to both those two people,” said Ms. Gilmore. “It could be that a person is a feared and envied sibling to one, and the father to the other. There’s always a trigger for this kind of projection, a certain combination of features to elicit a negative reaction.”

Nemesis relationships fall into three basic patterns (although there are many subgroups, too numerous to go into here):

1. I hate my equal at work, and will do anything in my power to destroy him or her. See Jennifer, above.

2. My boss has decided that I am his/her nemesis and ripe for destruction.

Example: Last year, a writer named Ricky Lee moved from Los Angeles to New York to become a senior editor at Cosmopolitan , hired by a woman he considered to be an old friend, who held a senior editorial position at the magazine. To Mr. Lee, who had previously been on staff at Vanity Fair and Vibe , Cosmo did not seem the friendliest of places. For part of his time there, he shared a cubicle with another editorial employee, who would occasionally discover that somebody had come by her desk and scratched out her face from the family photos she kept on her desk.

But Mr. Lee’s problems were with the friend who had hired him, who he said was intent on retaining her position as editor Bonnie Fuller’s favorite. Shortly after Mr. Lee began, he was in his friend’s (soon to be nemesis’) office when the managing editor walked in with a page proof. “The managing editor came up to me and said, ‘Look at this,’ and it said, ‘Great!’ from Bonnie written on it. The managing editor said, ‘That’s amazing, that never happens.’ My friend was sitting there, and from that day on, she tortured me. She would make me rewrite things, I swear, 25 times. She would say, ‘This isn’t snappy enough!’ I would keep changing and changing and changing and, ultimately, we’d go back to the first version that I gave her.”

Like many nemeses, Mr. Lee’s delivered mixed signals. “One minute she’d be berating me, the next I would hear her calling me from her office, ‘Ricky, Ricky, Ricky! C’mere, Ricky!’ And I’d go into her office and she’d tell me who she’d slept with the night before,” he said.

Shortly before he decided he’d had enough–despite the rewards of writing articles such as, “Why Don’t You Wear Braids Like Pocahontas?”–and resigned, Mr. Lee made a grievous error in judgment when he handed in a story to his nemesis. “I put it on her desk, which was always covered with papers. I went back to my desk and she came up and said, ‘Ricky, where is the copy?’ and I said, ‘I put it on your desk.’ She goes, ‘I don’t see it,’ so I walked to her office and pointed to it on her desk. Then she screamed at the top of her lungs, ‘Don’t you ever put anything on my desk again! Put it in my chair, that way I’ll see it! ‘”

“I was ready to knock her off the floor,” Mr. Lee said. Since he reported directly to his nemesis, his recourse was limited. He did, however, amuse himself by capitalizing on his nemesis’ weakness. “She had sort of a hearing defect and it would really piss her off if somebody spoke quietly to her. So I would do that: I would go sit in her office and sit across from her and talk as low as I could,” he said.

3. I have decided that my boss is my nemesis and he/she is ripe for destruction.

Example: Long before writer Suzanne Weber wrote the diss-and-tell memoir How to Heal the Hurt by Hating (under the name Anita Liberty), and before she got the nod from Hollywood to develop both a movie and television series based on the book, she was a permanent temp, doing graphic design work for A.T. Kearney Inc., the mammoth consulting firm. “I was trying to make money so I could go home and write and feel O.K. about it,” said Ms. Weber.

And she had a nemesis. “The office manager obviously had it out for me,” she said. Ms. Weber thinks the office manager and other Kearney lifers may have been jealous of her freedom. “Even though temps don’t get benefits, they have this weird freedom to kind of come and go, and they’re not locked into it,” she said. “There are total drawbacks to temping, but you know what? I can go home at 5 P.M., and if they ask me to stay later, they literally have to pay me cash.”

Early on, Ms. Weber had trouble making phone calls: She worked in a glass-walled office that looked out onto a hallway. Whenever Ms. Weber got on the phone, which was not technically part of her job, she felt herself being watched. “All of a sudden, I’d just hear this sound, this bing, bing, bing, bing , you know, banging on glass,” said Ms. Weber. “My back was to it, and I’d just turn around with this look on my face, like, You’ve got to be kidding me . And she would just stand there, wagging her finger.”

Then the office manager began getting copies of Ms. Weber’s phone records. “She called me into her office, sat me down and said, ‘You were on the phone for eight hours this month.’ I was like, ‘Eight hours doesn’t sound like very much at all. O.K., so what’s the problem? What am I here for?'”

But Ms. Weber slowly began to enjoy her nemesis. And she found it bonded her to her colleagues. With Ms. Weber as ringleader, they would make fun of the office manager’s outfits. “She became the one to tease and mock,” said Ms. Weber. “I think it brought all of us closer, that we had someone we could make fun of together.”

But just when things are getting wacky, well, there’s this Swiss cultural anthropologist living in Iowa who doesn’t think any of this is very funny. Not at all!

‘Yes, they may enjoy it, but do they understand the harm they inflict?” asked Noa Davenport, who co-wrote Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace with Ruth D. Schwartz and Gail P. Elliott. The European term “mobbing” was first applied to the workplace by Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann in the early 80’s, and it refers to the ganging up of several co-workers against a common enemy. The word was coined by zoologist Konrad Lorenz to describe how several small animals can gang up to attack a larger one. Ms. Davenport describes mobbing as a means to “force someone out of the workplace through rumor, innuendo, intimidation, discrediting, and particularly humiliation.” “Mobbing,” she wrote, “is a serious form of nonsexual, nonracial–’status-blind’–harassment.”

Ms. Davenport said that she and her co-authors wrote the book after all three had been mobbed. She wouldn’t give details. In Sweden, laws have been passed to protect people from this personality-based discrimination, and Ms. Davenport hopes to do the same in the United States. “This is a form of workplace violence,” she said.

Ms. Davenport said that if a person is effectively mobbed, they can end up with what she refers to as a “mental mental injury,” an initial mental trauma that causes other mental complications like depression.

And there are other risks associated with cultivating a nemesis. Mr. Lee felt as though he was forced out of Cosmopolitan . And Ms. Weber discovered how fickle hate, like love, can be. After embarking on a relationship with a “really cute” management consultant, she found herself ostracized–nearly mobbed!–by others in the graphic design department.

“I was like The Lord of the Flies for a time, and then I got dethroned,” Ms. Weber said. “I was the leader of the pack egging everyone on. Then it started to turn. All of a sudden I was out. I was Piggy, and they were stabbing me with sticks.”

A few days after Christmas, her nemesis canned her. Ms. Weber remembers that the woman was wearing a jingle bell around her neck.

Now, although she has her own office, Ms. Weber is not fulfilled. “I kind of miss the office dynamic,” she said. “Who can I hate? Now I have a lot of problems with cab drivers. And I hate some people in Hollywood. I know I’m going to write a screenplay and some idiotic director’s going to come in and change it in some idiotic way. And I’m going to hate him.”

Shortly after Jennifer’s nemesis moved to another part of the office, another male architect moved into her work bay. This time, he hated her .

“I guess it’s the natural order of things,” she said with a sigh. “I hate somebody and somebody else hates me.” To this day, she said, she has no idea why.

Additional reporting by Sam Charap.

Who’s Your Office Nemesis? How to Maintain Healthy Hatred at Work