How to Handle a Toxic Coworker

Toxic coworkers are bad for everyone, lowering morale, negatively impacting productivity, and eventually affecting employee turnover. We all recognize this, and strive to avoid toxic people as much as we can – but sometimes toxic coworkers are practically unavoidable.

What’s the best way to handle a toxic coworker? And how can you spin this situation to your advantage?

Types of Toxic Behavior

Is that coworker truly toxic? Or do you just have some personality differences?

These are some examples of truly toxic behavior:

·       Harassment. The most egregious toxic behavior is outright harassment. If someone is bullying you, sexually harassing you, or interfering with your work, you need to take action right away.

·       Aggression or intimidation. Some people try to intimidate your or make passive aggressive comments to mess with you or manipulate you.

·       Gossip. Light, infrequent gossip isn’t much of an issue, but it can quickly escalate to something more nefarious.

·       Stealing credit or prestige. Nobody should be taking credit for someone else’s work.

·       Chronic negativity or pessimism. Constant whining, complaining, or pessimistic comments can bring down the mood of the entire team.

Document the Behavior

One of the first things you should start doing is documenting the behavior whenever you see it or encounter it. If they write you a nasty email, save it. If they say something mean to you in the hallway come write it down when you get back to your desk. If they take credit for a project that you did, detail the steps that led up to that event. 

This will help you come to realize whether this is a frequent behavior or whether it’s relatively isolated incidents. More importantly, this will serve as excellent ammunition if you have to escalate the situation.

Focus on Your Own Work and Performance

Some toxic behaviors are truly disruptive and detrimental to you and the workplace. Others are just temporary annoyances, and with a healthy mindset, they have no real effect on you. If you focus on your own work and your own performance, petty comments and trivial interactions won’t be able to stand in your way. 

Try to forget about the gossip or the annoying habits of your coworker and just focus on doing your best in your role. Some toxic people are only toxic because they want to get a reaction out of you; if they never get it, they’ll discontinue this behavior.

Understand This Isn’t About You

To cope, understand that this isn’t really about you. Toxic people are usually toxic because they’ve had a lifetime of bad experiences and reinforcement of these negative behaviors. They are also setting themselves up for failure. This isn’t about you doing something wrong; this is about someone else not having the support or guidance that they needed to be a decent person.

Shine a Spotlight on Their Comments

One of the best ways to defuse a toxic situation is to shine a spotlight on it in a non-threatening manner. For example, let’s say you’re in a meeting, and your toxic coworker makes a passive-aggressive comment that is insulting to you and unprofessional. Ask them to repeat themselves in a loud and confident tone. They have two choices; either take back the comment and apologize or double down on the unprofessional, insulting behavior in front of everyone else.

Have a Frank Conversation

As soon as possible, have a frank conversation with the person interfering with your work. Sometimes, toxic people don’t understand that they’re being toxic; perhaps for their whole life, people have just been silently ignoring them or positively reinforcing this behavior. If you let them know that this behavior is bothersome and give them a roadmap to future success, they may be more than willing to comply with your requests and change for the better. They may even be grateful for the opportunity.

Conversely, if they decide to continue this behavior, you’ll at least be able to say that you tried to resolve this directly.

Get the Boss Involved

If you had a direct conversation with the toxic coworker to no avail, and their behavior continues to affect your work and morale, it’s time to escalate the situation. Talk to your boss or immediate supervisor about what you’re experiencing, and make sure you provide documentation to prove your points. The more information you have and the more of an effort you’ve already made, the more likely it is that you’re going to get help.

There’s a chance that your boss doesn’t help you at all, or your workplace is so infested with toxic coworkers that no individual action can make much of a difference. Unfortunately, if that’s the case, your best course of action is to leave and find a new opportunity elsewhere.