We spend most of our lives working. But why does working hard for that paycheque also often come at a price?
And what’s that price, you ask? Interpersonal relationships in the office. Whether it’s backstabbing, gossiping, Negative Nancy’s (the “old” Karens), narcissism, bullying, or harassment, working with a toxic coworker can impact your job performance or, worse yet, derail your career progression. Not to worry, here are 10 tips you can follow to handle your toxic coworker like toxic waste — with care.
First and foremost, a job is a job. Therefore, no matter how much you want to scream, shout, or tell that toxic coworker where to go — you need to remain professional. Your livelihood may be on the line.
When working with a toxic coworker, especially one you don’t trust, approach them with a mastery of calm and composure. In their book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment, Gary Chapman et al. write, “find ways to nurture your inner reserves and gain perspective. Develop toughness, but resist embittered resentments.” Don’t engage in uncomfortable standoffs and put your mental health first by not engaging.
Keep detailed records
While not engaging would be the ideal response, sometimes you may be forced to work with a non-trustworthy colleague, whether they be on your team or they work around you, in which case, keep detailed records of all your interactions. There is nothing more awful than trying to be the bigger person or remaining calm and not having specific examples to lean on, if things do, in fact, get ugly.
We are all human, and no matter how much we want to rise above the noise, it’s easier said than done. Keep track of your conversations or email chains, make a note of any inappropriate behaviour, try to avoid one-on-one spoken interactions (have others around who can corroborate your concerns), and create a plan that protects you and your job.
Strategically limit engagement
When a work environment becomes infested by a toxic employee, it spreads like poison through the walls and in your life and possibly even beyond that. Much worse, it can leave you feeling emotionally exhausted and unhappy. Keep your distance by limiting how you engage with them professionally.
Some simple tips to tactfully manage communication:
- Use verbal cues: Respond with short unenthusiastic sentences. If you are working from home and communicating through Slack or Microsoft Teams, don’t use any exclamation points, emojis, or GIFS. Take time to respond, be direct, or even stay silent. Sometimes the best response is no response at all (particularly if someone is trying to bait you and get you to respond emotionally or in an out-of-character way).
- Cut-off engagement with pre-planned excuses: Cut the conversation off by letting them know you have a meeting, a deadline or prior engagement whenever they engage in toxic behaviour (whether it be gossiping or something else). This is a sure-fire way of getting them to stop thinking of you as available to them for unhealthy behaviour. Don’t apologize for leaving, but offer to reschedule under different circumstances (i.e. with others around, etc.).
- If you disagree with their perspective, offer another possible way to look at the situation: Letting Mr. Toxic know that other perspectives exist or that you see things differently will show them you won't be their echo chamber, if this is what they're looking for.
Reward good behaviour
“Toxicity in the workplace can increase anxiety in others,” says Maria Christopoulos, a Registered Psychotherapist specializing in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Interpersonal Therapy. “This, in turn, affects the way people think about their own abilities creating an environment laden with self-doubt and indecision.”
Much like helping reframe a potentially misunderstood interaction, praising someone who shows positive behaviours by smiling, agreeing, and engaging with positive people will allow you to flourish in a toxic work environment. Try physically turning your body away from difficult people; taking a step back when they approach or walking away can communicate your discomfort and desire to limit your interactions with them.
Set an example
Affecting change is difficult. In Coping with Toxic Managers, Subordinates — and Other Difficult People, Roy H. Lubit explains, “To avoid the stress of attempting to foster change, people often convince themselves that it is impossible to effect change or that the situation is not that destructive. Both of these beliefs are false.” Avoid stooping to their level. Maintain your team goals and be a role model for how you want the people around you to act. Set a standard that allows you and the rest of your coworkers to benefit from collaboration and open dialogue, not retaliation.
Vent outside of the workplace
Trying to have a positive outlook on the situation may not work for everyone, or at all times, so venting to a friend (not a colleague) may alleviate some of that pent up pressure and possible resentment, without contributing to a toxic work environment yourself.
Letting out how you feel to a close, trusted confidante allows you to not bottle up your emotions. If you have access to therapy, talking to a pro about your feelings, will let you take care of yourself and release that stress.
But remember to do this outside of the office. Don’t make the mistake of writing, “I hate my coworkers” through work communications software that could be monitored or on work premises either.
Have a conversation
This may be the least desirable option because it leaves you in a vulnerable position. Still, suppose you don’t try to have an open and honest conversation with the toxic coworker in question. In that case, you are 100% guaranteeing nothing will ever change, according to the Harvard Business Review.
“Coworkers can play a big role in perpetuating this cycle, creating a toxic environment based on negativity and aggressiveness,” explains Christopoulos. “People who play a role in this toxicity will often lose the opportunity to see the value in others, creating a negative pattern of behaviour that can be difficult to break. Kindness, empathy and resilience can be key to breaking these patterns.” Accordingly, opening up a dialogue can help you understand each other better and be made aware of workplace mistakes.
Learn healthy coping mechanisms
When we can’t fix a coworker’s behaviour, even after trying to empathize with them, we’re left with two options: leave the situation alone or learn to cope with it.
No matter how hard we try, we can’t change people. However, we can make them aware of their behaviour, give them an opposite outlook, or show what actions are appropriate. Yet, when they remain oblivious to the issue at hand (them), we have to set boundaries to protect ourselves.
Some productive ways of doing this are practicing mindfulness such as breathing techniques, learning to accept your thoughts and feelings but not attaching a judgement to them, and taking this as a teachable moment to focus on your own work and what you can control.
Talk to your boss
The decision to talk to your boss can be a tough one. You also walk a fine line of it backfiring when using this as a solution on how to deal with toxic coworkers. Unfortunately, though, things may escalate to where your job performance is at risk, or the toxicity can cross over into bullying and harassment. If your work situation has gotten to this level, and you feel like you can no longer handle the situation, talk to your manager or even human resources. Suggest to your boss to conduct a team meeting where productive behaviours and roles are revisited, so no one is singled out. Ultimately, It’s best to make people in positions of power that are made to deal with these scenarios aware of what’s going on for the good of the company and your fellow colleagues.
Avoid, avoid, avoid
Toxic employees can cause damage in an organization long before they’re identified and dealt with. With that being said, if all else fails, avoid them like the plague.