Wellbeing / Stress management

How do you deal with betrayal in business?

Betrayal. It’s not something that’s ever nice to experience – but when it comes from someone you thought you shared mutual respect and regard with, it particularly stings.

1 March 2016 by

I want to share something that happened to me last year. It’s probably not uncommon in the business world but it’s the first time something like this has happened to me, and I’ll admit, it’s left me reeling. Given I haven’t been able to process it in any kind of useful way my hope is someone reading this might have some great thoughts or techniques to share so I can finally put it behind me!

Last year I took part in a 12-month business-coaching program that was partly funded by the State government. It involved a series of one-on-one coaching sessions with a mentor and I thought it would be a great way to get some outside input for growing my business.

I’ve had mixed experiences with business coaches before, but clicked with this one, (let’s call him Dave), right away. He had all the right qualifications, a wealth of experience and I felt we had similar attitudes and values. I was committed to getting everything I could out of the program, so I put myself on the line and during the first three months, implemented all the suggestions he made.

I enjoyed the program and felt it was incredibly helpful. Dave became a trusted mentor and I was completely comfortable opening up to him about my business. Such was my confidence in him I referred two people to him. One of those people was a client of my business. Someone who’d been a client for several years.

When they first came to us, their marketing was in complete disarray. They’d had a number of bad experiences with unreliable marketing suppliers, which meant they had little trust. We took our usual levels of transparency to another level with them, got their core marketing sorted and tailored a plan that met the lifestyle aspirations they had for other aspects of their business.

"I’ve had mixed experiences with business coaches before, but clicked with this one, (let’s call him Dave), right away. "

Within 18 months we’d become trusted advisors – not just for the marketing side of things, but for other areas of their business too. It was only when they turned to me for more general business advice that I referred them on to Dave; I felt that while we could have given them some help, it wasn’t really our area of expertise.

Want more articles like this? Check out the stress-management section.

Since I knew Dave had multiple other marketing people doing work for him (people he had ‘kick-back’ type relationships with), and did quite a lot of marketing himself, there was a little voice inside my head that wondered whether he would stick to offering the general business advice I sent that particular client to him for … or feel tempted to stray.

In the end I decided he’d act with integrity and also understand that while the plan we’d worked up for the client may not have incorporated everything he’d do himself, there were good reasons. (And, if asked, I’d have been happy to explain those reasons.)

I was wrong.

The very same week I finished the program with Dave, my client sacked us. Dave had referred them to one of his kickback-marketing suppliers. Needless to say I felt incredibly betrayed.

Dave was a person I had really opened up to and shared my heart and soul with. Compounding the emotional distress, we also had to deal with the financial impact of losing one of our best clients.

All of this unravelled just before my last coaching session. Dave showed up to it being his usual self, not knowing that we’d already been sacked. I let the session progress for a while (out of curiosity more than anything – would he say something?) before taking matters into my own hands. I looked him straight in the eye and asked why he’d referred my client elsewhere. Let’s just say the answer he gave was unsatisfactory.

I’ve since disconnected completely from him (Facebook and LinkedIn) and have no more contact, but emotionally I’m finding it really hard to switch off.

So I know this is a bit of a break from my normal Flying Solo articles, but I really wanted to share this story with other business owners. I am sure I’m not the only person who has had to deal with a situation like this and I wanted to see how other people have dealt with it.

Have you ever been betrayed in a business sense? What advice would you have for someone who is struggling to deal with it and move on?

Jo Macdermott

from Next Marketing works with business owners in Melbourne who require marketing support. Jo specialises in tactical marketing plans and campaigns that are pragmatic and make a lot of business sense.


  • Hey Jo, thanks for sharing this.
    Sadly there are a few Daves in this world who don’t have integrity and are just out there to make a fast buck.
    I’m sorry this happened to you, it does leave a bad taste in the mouth and it can make you feel a little down and damaged. But for every Dave I meet I meet 50 or so non Daves, who are lovely, kind, thoughtful, trustable and have your back.

    Onwards and upwards

  • I was actually betrayed by a business partner just before Christmas. I decided to write her an open public letter explaining my thoughts and opinions (not mentioning any names to see if i could reach a guilty conscious). I have since received an apology from her offsider but nothing from my (ex) business partner. The letter helped me let everything out and feel better instead of making a scene. You can read it here if interested: http://tiffanygouge.com.au/open-letter/

    • Tiffany – great letter and I am sorry to hear that you have also been betrayed.

      • Thanks Jo – its a horrible feeling isn’t it! Onwards and upwards for both of us!

    • Fantastic letter Tiffany and I will be sharing it within a women’s business group I’m part of – many of them often have similar situations with competitors.

  • Hey Jo! This is a really thoughtful read. I’d be interested to hear what his justification was. Did he feel that all is fair in love and business?

    • He lied straight to my face – there was no justification. He is a kick back kind of guy – so I think that “that all is fair in love and business” – is pretty much on the spot.

  • Betrayal comes in many forms.
    I still feel the pain of a major betrayal over 10 years ago.
    I spent years building a business with some people who turned out to be liars and downright dishonest. They worked really hard at cheating me.
    More recently I’ve had a client, who I went to great pains to support during their tough times, turn around and attempt to use me (free) to brief up my replacement when they started being able to do the things I’d been advising they do for years.
    So I sacked them before that happened.
    I’ve also had a third party supplier attempt to make me the bad guy with my clients because of their poor form.
    What can we do?
    I don’t know. The maxim “hire slow, fire fast” helps a bit.
    I do hope that Karma plays a part in these people’s lives but ultimately the best thing I’ve found is cut them from my life and waste no more energy on them at all.

    • Such wise words – and awful examples, I am very sorry to hear. Karma, yep.

  • Yeah – some people are just ‘scumbags’ when it comes to money and business. Wait until your business partner does it to you.

    If you have a business partner now and don’t have a rock solid, water tight partnership agreement. Stop what you are doing right now and go and see your solicitor.

    • I have heard many stories about business partnerships gone wrong – I am in the Next Marketing business ‘solo’ – I agree that its really important.

    • BuyAustralianMade.com.au

      Totally agree Blue, another business which I am director of (not Buy Australian Made) after just over 12 months working 40 plus hours a week whilst drawing no salary the business secured a client which would inject income of around 200K a year into the business. The business from this new client meant that I would finally be able to draw a salary and would have allowed the business to grow to the next level. My business partner decided that he would be able to do that work himself outside the business structure. I should have listened when he used to tell me that “…it is always about the money”.

  • Wow, your hurt is understandable. You may already know what I’m about to suggest, although it’s always hard to put into practise: consider that holding on to the hurt affects you more than anyone else. It’s a heavy burden when past hurts become bitter roots in your soul. What “Dave” did was a breach of trust and therefore unethical as well as wrong. However, for your own sake, forgive “Dave”. Showing him grace will leave you better prepared to welcome your client back, should they realise that your service is better than your competitors. I hope that helps, Jo.

    • Wow, that is a really interesting point – and I hadn’t got there yet. But I will keep it in mind – thank you :)-

  • Carl Sherriff

    Wow, I know exactly how you feel. I did some free stuff for an old mate (I thought) I knew from London days way back in the 90’s ( but, we’re both in Sydney now). So the free stuff was a great idea. Then he gave me a budget (yes, in writing). Then when I’d fulfilled the brief, plus tons of revisions (yes, all on email) I invoiced. Then he says it was a friend thing and he’d never given me a budget & the friendship was over if I pursued the matter. Oh. Yes, I’ll chase it up, but I know I’ll never get paid. I so want to give his name!!!

    • Thanks really poor form Carl – guess not such an ‘old mate’ after all. Sorry to hear that.

  • Paul Heck

    Incredibly unprofessional and unethical on ‘Dave’s’ part and one that would suggest that his underlying ethics are not sound or good, which casts all of his previous mentoring advice into some doubt. Having said that I would say that you should find some way to forgive ‘Dave’, because his actions say more about him and they are his responsibility, unethical as they are, not yours. Take ownership of your actions and be confident that you fired him, because of his actions. May also be a good idea to reach out to your previous client and ask them some key questions. I suppose that it may also illustrate that in these sorts of circumstances (mentoring programs) that it would be very helpful to have some sort of contract in place that covers commercial in confidence and non-disclosure agreements. Thank you for sharing and all the best for your recovery of trust

    • Thanks Paul – much appreciated.

      • Paul Heck

        Just read a TED quote that said something along the lines of ‘Forgiveness is not about condoning violence or renouncing justice, it’s about setting yourself free from anger’, so I suppose there may well be some anger about the betrayal of trust and that the process of forgiveness allows you the option to free yourself from that. That’s not to say you forget the betrayal, but you may forgive it.

  • Geoff Sirmai

    So recognise your experience Jo! I was betrayed by someone who engaged me as a subcontractor and then took credit for my work – to the extent that the client didn’t even know I existed, let alone recognised that most of their success had come from my input.
    One factor to consider: someone who betrays is probably absolutely desperate for money – or ethically clueless. Either way, if that is the case, how successful a model are they really? Were they ever really qualified to be a ‘mentor’… and should we ever have trusted their ‘expert’ advice? Easy in retrospect I know!

    That said – as Kate has mentioned – there are some truly lovely, generous people out there who offer support and advice with no ‘agenda’ other than friendship – or the recognition that good will is its own reward!

    • Thanks Geoff – its such a powerful tool to always give credit where credit is due. Very wise words :)-

  • Unfortunately there are ratbags lurking in every corner, and over the years I’ve met a few.

    When it comes to ‘inviting’ someone into your business, be it by offering them up as a referal or outsourcing, trust never seems enough now-a-days. One almost needs to have a written contract to protect one’s own interest.
    And I agree with Jonathon about showing grace, but more about showing your ex-client that you bear no grudge with them,and that your door is always open should they wish to call upon you once again. Show the world that you are bigger than him when it comes to ethics and trust.

    To me, someone who does a lot of “kickbacks” really doesn’t have their client’s best interest in mind – only their own pocket.

    • Such wise words – and a great way of thinking about kickbacks – that sums up really well why I don’t play in that world.

  • Jo, thank you so much for sharing your experience. It’s brave of you and it will definitely help others. In 2014-2015 I had something happen that shook me in a similar way and reading articles about others having had similar experiences really helped me move on. In the end (after a looooong time) I genuinely felt that the experience had been an overall positive. It cost me a lot of money and heartache, but it would have been difficult to find a better learning opportunity at the price! Here are a few thoughts for you:
    1. Forgiveness: During this episode, I was astonished at how angry I became and how debilitating it was. Hence, I really like Jonathan’s suggestion of forgiving ‘Dave’. It’s important, though, to find your own meaningful definition of forgiveness. Some people might think of ‘forgiving’ a person as healing a relationship — for me, this isn’t something you can do without the participation of the other person, so it usually requires they show remorse, offer an apology and take some active step towards healing as well. Others might see forgiveness as not necessarily returning to a relationship with the person who betrayed you, but actively choosing to let go of the negative emotions as they come up so you don’t become embittered. Either way, it’s not a single act — it’s an ongoing process.
    2. Harnessing the anger for the good of your business: I personally think that trying to let go of anger without also seeking some kind of recognition/acknowledgement can leave you feeling weakened rather than strengthened. Acknowledgement from outside yourself — especially from the person who hurt you, on the rare occasions that happens — feels amazing, but even a full, clear-eyed internal acknowledgment in your capacity as boss of your business can really help. To me, anger in this situation isn’t just a horrible toxic feeling. It can also be a useful signal that you need to do something to stand up for yourself and your business. Figuring out what that is and then doing it sometimes resolves the anger because you know you’ve taken action and that signal is no longer needed. Perhaps writing this article has been such an action for you. What else might your anger and hurt be telling you about what you and your business need right now to become better and stronger?
    3. You mention that ‘Dave’ ‘had all the right qualifications’ — was he a member of any professional association that has/enforces a code of ethics? If so, it might be worth reporting the issue. There are several professional organisations of this kind for coaches — e.g. I’m a member of the International Coach Federation, which has a complaints process that clients can follow if they believe their coach has been unethical. ICF coaches can lose their credential and membership if a complaint is well-founded. However, a lot of people call themselves ‘coaches’ without undertaking the ethics and other professional training required to join such an association. Unfortunately, not all clients are aware of the distinction between qualifications in terms of being familiar with the subject matter (as ‘Dave’ seems to have been) and qualifications in terms of ethical commitment.
    Again, thanks for sharing and I hope all this manure ends up nourishing your business growth!

    • Thanks Janet – you are the second person in a matter of days who has mentioned the ICF link – and I don’t think he is a member / but I will look it up.

  • It’s a good point – I guess the difference in my case is that I directly asked Dave the question and he lied to my face about it. You certainly did have a very difficult no win situation, I do think though that you did the right thing.

  • I’m curious to know if Dave was made available to you by the ‘partly state funded’ program?

    If so, you really need to report his behaviour to the program administrators. He is in a unique position to prey upon vulnerable, fledgling businesses and that needs to stop.

    Come to think of it, you may even have a legitimate claim for damages if you felt inclined to pursue it. Even if you don’t, the organisation that hired/referred him would probably be most upset to hear of their potential exposure to such a claim.

    I’m not suggesting revenge – I’m suggesting that you do what you can to ensure his actions have the proper consequences.

    • I am really close to doing this // and have considered. I just felt it was a huge amount of negative energy (to report him) and this is the first time I have even spoken about this to more than my husband and couple of close friends.

  • Mark Warburton

    In my personal opinion, one of the best ways to deal with a clear lack of integrity in the modern day is to name and shame. It is the only way that other people will not walk into this. I see you were careful not to name, even though you did shame. People are worried about defamation cases and rightly so but it is not unlawful to tell the story if it is true and you have documentary proof (and there is no contractual obligation on you not to do so).

    • Mark, you are correct in saying that I did disclose the name / details of the ‘Dave’ and the program for example. Kelly (FS editor) – really did help me stick to the facts – so they are as true as they happened (as my first draft to Kelly was longer!!) I wrote the article perhaps more for me – as it feels nice today to get it off my chest. I did think about running it past my lawyer about what I could and couldn’t publish – but in the end, I did what I did. That may change in the future // see what happens. I appreciate your perspective though.

  • Hi Jo, I think your story is horrendous and I would definitely speak to the government body who I assume referred him to you – there should have been a clause to prevent client solicitation. But what I really want to say is that I love your story – I am so tired of hearing nothing but wonderful stories of business success and that everything about running a solo business is a dream come true – my point is – your story made me feel better – I am not the only one betrayed by someone I trusted and I hope knowing you are not alone makes you feel better too. I had a very well known brand as my best client last year – two employees fearing loosing their jobs to me as I am a third party provider created several lies that were accepted by the COO and I was quickly dropped d – I was and still am devastated – The two did loose their jobs, so it was all for nothing except that I was left embarrassed and client-less. Emotionally it is exactly a year ago now but I still can’t get over it. I always expect dignity and respect from my corporate clients but perhaps I expect too much.

    • Oh Kate – #devastated – yep that is so in my zone. I am also soo over the ‘business is always so rosy’ – but it is hard to share the ups and downs publicly. I really do feel your pain and I am glad we could connect here and share stories.

    • I agree with Kate, I think you should inform the government body who was funding the initial mentorship – having someone on their payroll who behaves unethically reflects poorly on the department, (there are rules about this sort of behaviour) and they will definitely want to know.

      … and if you can forgive “Dave”, for your own sake, not his, give that a try. Even if you can’t forgive him yet, if you can make the statement that you’re willing to try to forgive him. (This is what I do when I’m really hurt and don’t feel ready to forgive… I tell myself that I will try, and that does ease the hurt a bit. Eventually I do forgive.)

      Good luck with it all, and may more and better clients come your way.

    • I agree Kate, I got sick of reading how people “made it by working 5 hours a week from the poolside”, so I’m now very open about my struggles and the ups and downs.

  • Mmmhhhhh, I have a similar situation.
    I developed a really close friendship with a. Clients fiancé, I was a bridesmaid in their wedding where I met my partner who was a groomsman.
    Over the next 6 months my friend turned nasty, being married went to her head. She turned into a mean friend, so I decided to step back from the friendship and just focus on the business relationship for a little while.
    We’ll she didn’t like that and sacked me as their bookkeeper a few weeks later.
    Needless to say I was devastated, I had lost a friend and a client.
    I told her after she sacked me how I felt about how she was treating me. She apologised loosely.
    About 3 months (now) later she is now very apologetic and trying to rekindle our friendship. In time I will be friends with her again, but it’s still an open wound at the moment.

    But I know how you feel when you say you have not been able to deal with how you feel in an effective situation.

    • Oh how awful – what a double hit and so close and personal. Thanks for sharing.

  • Hi Jo, you’ve probably figured out by now that you are not alone in experiencing betrayal in business… Yes, I have encountered a situation where someone who I looked up to in business ended up treating me like dirt and also advised a new client of mine to sack me. Fortunately, my new client had mind of her own and stayed on. But the betrayal and prior treatment by this other person devastated me and made me incredibly angry.

    Yes, I did consider making the situation public, justifying this as me wanting to prevent the same from happening to other people. But reacting publicly when you are angry and hurt is nearly always a bad idea. I think you are very wise to have not immediately responded publicly with guns blazing. Yes, there are times when it may be appropriate to do that but consider that by publicly naming them, you are also tying your name to their name, forever.

    It was incredibly difficult for me to let go and I would even wake up thinking about the situation and having arguments in my head with this person where I told them what I really thought of them. It wasn’t a healthy way to live.

    I realised that by holding on to that anger, I was actually tying myself to this person too. Others have talked about forgiveness and yes, I believe that it is incredibly important to choose to forgive (not to condone bad behaviour or even necessarily to try to rebuild a relationship) but to set yourself free of them and of the toxic after effects of the situation.

    So, with that picture of me being physically chained to this other person in my mind, I found a quiet place and said out loud, “I choose to forgive ____ for ____ and today I cut all
    ties with ____.” And I pictured a sword cutting through those chains that were
    tying us together.

    I found that it was a very powerful thing to do and, yes, it enabled me to move on. But be aware that you may need to repeat this down the track when you are reminded of the
    situation and get angry again (after all, none of us are perfect!). Down the track, I was even able to say that I wished them well.

    Dealing with betrayal is a bit like grief, it is a process, so don’t expect your emotions to be sorted out immediately or to expect to feel friendly toward the person who betrayed you, even after you forgive them. But you can CHOOSE to forgive and CHOOSE to let go – and then let your emotions catch up later.

  • This is why I don’t work with anyone who receives kick-backs (as much as possible anyway – it’s not always apparent). And I refuse to accept any myself. Unfortunately, greed usually wins.

    Also, always a good idea to go with people who are members of their respective industry bodies. It at least shows a basic level of validation, or better yet, certification. That is exactly what the Institute or Management Consultants does for the management consulting profession, for example – members are all vetted and agree to a code of conduct and a code of ethics (not a guarantee of ethical behaviour but better than not having that commitment). They’re also reference checked and can apply for a globally recognised certification, which does prove their professionalism. Disclaimer: I am the National President of IMC Australia, but the example above was just to highlight my point about industry bodies.

  • Vanessa Wiltshire

    I feel the forgiveness you need to give Jo, is to yourself, not necessarily Dave. Certainly I encourage you to come to a place of acceptance regarding Dave. But I hazard a guess the pain is really about the “failure” of your intuition and judgement. I’ve been there. Mostly, I’ve had bad experiences with coaches, save one who presented more as a caring friend than anything else. And it’s not that your intuition failed you, it may be Dave had no intention of breaking your trust until he was tempted. Either this or he was a superb manipulator and knew what the right things to say and do to win your trust, were. You will learn from this experience if you allow it to teach you. Love yourself and be kind in this hard moment. Thinking of you.

  • Artwork.direct

    Hi Jo, I wanted to add my support and thank you for sharing your experience. I’m so sorry you went through that experience with a Business coach! Most people expect a high degree of honor when it comes to coaches but I guess not 🙁 I was surprised to hear about Dave, in truth, but grateful that you shared!

    I’ve been in business over 13 years, and have also experienced a small number of nasty business betrayals that felt awful at the time, but now I see as valuable experience. The first was a family member, which took us (my partner and I) by complete surprise. Then later a supplier, which was also unexpected. We’ve had few minor incidents since, but nothing that didn’t make us stronger and wiser.

    The lesson I had to learn mainly concerns my natural transparency, and desire to give and share support. These traits make me a good friend, but were weaknesses in business. There are certain things that are unwise to share with acquaintances (or family). I used to want approval from people much more than i do now; perhaps I was looking for encouragement or praise, something like that. So when our business first took off, I answered every question openly and enthusiastically, be it from family, friends, suppliers, whoever. I don’t do that anymore. I never discuss how much money we make, our IP, our marketing strategy or anything that could be used to harm our business, except with my partner.

    BTW. I noted some mention of forgiveness. IMO opinion forgiveness is special gift you give when a person is good enough and humble enough to apologise for harming you. I don’t feel that it is deserved, or necessary, for people you’ll meet in life who harm you remorselessly. Those people are to be avoided, and to be used as a lesson. Those people make you stronger and wiser, but they are not worthy of something as wonderful as forgiveness. No matter what TV says 🙂

  • disqus_9QedxKjTFc

    Need to go off grid and take time for self thought if betrayal is the large control system. Looks like the money system is not what it seems. I live with betrayal everyday. Unfair taxes, laws, and how our political system and media sway the mind’s of people. Not sure some people can help themselves. Somehow we need to work together with a more stable foundation. When a people lack an honest money system that takes home’s, land for growing food we may find ourselves not so stable in our true needs.

  • Thanks Jo for raising the topic, you have shown great courage. Though it bothers me less these days I was on the wrong side of a nasty business betrayal back in 2011 that cost me a huge slice of my annual income. Being bound by the anger hurts me more than her & I’ve slowly tried to chip away at it, but there’s still hurt there. What the break up did do was make me realise the type of people I enjoy working with and I’m proud to say that these days most of my clients I count as friends so there have been lots of positives. I’m less trusting however. All the best and well done again for putting your vulnerability out there.

  • Hi Jo, I would also like to offer my encouragement and hope that a day sometime in the near(ish) future you will be able to see your experience as a positive in ways you might not be able to even imagine now.

    I am an open and sharing kind of person I guess and I love seeing others succeed so I choose consciously to deal with people in such a way that I may be taken advantage of.

    I do it because it is who I am and I do not want to change.

    The downsides are real, just as you have experienced and they are painful.

    And the upsides are awesome!

    I hope you can find a way that reconciles your feelings in a way that really works for you.

88,927 people use Flying Solo to help them create a business with life. Do you?

Connect with Flying Solo

Explore the benefits of membership