How to Deal With Toxic Co-Workers

two coworkers drinking coffee together

In an ideal world, every encounter with co-workers would be purely professional and everyone would always be on the same page regarding work responsibilities. But in reality, you will face your fair share of toxic co-workers — and then some.

When the inevitable happens, you need to know how to handle the situation so your own work behavior and attitude doesn’t suffer. There are a few different ways you can approach the problem. Before confronting the toxic co-worker or heading to the HR department, stop to think about the best option for everyone involved.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

It can be incredibly frustrating when a co-worker doesn’t pull their own weight, especially if it reflects on you, the whole team, or holds you back from being productive. But before you lay into them, try to figure out why they’re not doing their work. Could your co-worker be dealing with something extremely difficult in their personal life? Everyone has a life outside of the office, but it’s not always possible to keep the emotional repercussions of personal life from bleeding over into professional situations.

When people are grieving, going through break ups, trying to adjust to a new baby, or even dealing with legal or financial troubles, their work is likely to suffer a little bit. Maybe your co-worker has spent weeks visiting doctors with a sick parent, and is so emotionally drained, stressed, and preoccupied they can only do so much work in a day.

The best thing to do is talk to your co-worker privately about their life. Ask if everything is okay, and explain that they’ve seemed a little tense and you just want to check in with them. You can’t combat a toxic co-worker by being toxic yourself. You’re better off treating them with compassion from the beginning of the problem since you don’t know what’s going on with them outside of the office.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Reevaluate

Sadly, some people just can’t be happy or pleasant. It doesn’t matter how kind and considerate you are, some people will just be hateful and ungrateful. If it seems they’re still spitting poison and negativity every direction, try to avoid them as much as possible.

You probably can’t steer clear of them all the time, but limiting your exposure to them when you can is all you can really do. Engage in minimal conversations, skip out on invitations to lunch from them, and — most importantly — surround yourself with the positive co-workers you enjoy.

In addition to avoidance, don’t feed into their toxicity. If you walk into the office at the same time and they start to complain about the building security guard, don’t respond. You are under no obligation to be as negative and hateful as someone else.

If they keep on with the complaints, change the subject at your first opportunity. Switch the convo over to something positive, like the pretty weather coming over the weekend or a great movie you recently watched. Maybe the act of steering them into positive conversations will subconsciously trick them into being a less toxic person. It might not, but it’s worth a shot.

Talk it Out

I’m a big fan of talking it out with people, but those types of conversations are like quicksand when co-workers are involved. However, it’s not good for you, your work, or the company if you’re suppressing emotions resulting from a toxic co-worker. If it comes to this point, schedule a lunch or coffee with that co-worker so you can speak to them outside of the office.

If you can, avoid going for drinks. A little alcohol might bolster your courage, but it can also lead you and your co-worker to say things better left unsaid.

When speaking with them, approach it from the angle of how you feel rather than what they did wrong. Telling someone “You did this” and “You shouldn’t have” puts them on the defensive and doesn’t start the conversation off the right way. Instead, explain your feelings in regard to something specific they’ve said. For instance, if this co-worker insulted you, then say “When you said this, I felt this.” This approach will likely make it easier for the two of you to work it out.

Remember you have every right to stand up for yourself and to talk to a co-worker about negative behavior. As adults, this is something you should be able to do without incident. Ask your co-worker to be kinder to you and explain you do your best to always be kind and respectful of them.

To keep it from seeming unfair, tell your co-worker you want them to tell you if their feelings are ever hurt by you as well. After all, open lines of communication are important if you’re going to foster good working relationships.

When All Else Fails…

If you’ve tried avoiding, redirecting, and talking to no avail, then you need to go to HR. Sometimes it’s the only way you can help a toxic person become less toxic. Of course, don’t go to your HR director just to complain or paint your co-worker as a villain. That only serves to make you look bad.

At the end of the day, you want to help this co-worker become a more pleasant person to work with and to keep the office as enjoyable and safe as possible.

When talking to HR, describe specific instances that have occurred and how it’s affecting your work performance and office experience. Don’t shoot off accusations or demand the toxic co-worker be fired or demoted. Simply ask your HR director to look into the situation because it’s making your job difficult to carry out. Human resources is a place to go for help and solutions. It’s not a lynching tree.

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