Tips for Handling a Toxic Coworker

By Janecia Britt

At least once in their career, everyone experiences  working with a toxic person. There are many types of uncomfortable work relationships, but there are a few types of behavior that can send up immediate red flags. Beware of the colleague who talks badly about other people or the person who complains nonstop. The person who needs to be given credit
for every little thing—or shuts you out of meetings—can also be a negative sign. You may catch yourself constantly complaining to your friends or spouse about that person. If thinking or talking about a hostile work relationship bleeds into your post-work life for a long period, it’s time to start taking steps to solve the problem.

The best first step is acknowledging that this is going on and that it is negatively affecting both your work and personal life. Then, maybe run it by a friend that you admire. Just say, “I just want to talk this through with you out loud, to make sure it’s them and not me.” In this process, self-awareness will be important: you don’t know what the person is going through. Recognizing that other people are fighting their own battles in life and it’s not always about you is one great step toward achieving peace of mind about a situation.

However, don’t forget to check yourself as well. We don’t often think that we may be contributing to our own toxic work environments. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a senior scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that this is because there is “remarkably little overlap between how other people see us and how we think we’re coming across.” If you’re sensing conflict, try to put yourself in a colleague’s shoes. Think about how you’re coming across. Clear communication is important when it comes to relating to others too. “Remember that people don’t have access to your secret thoughts and feelings,” Dr. Halvorson wrote. “You have to make them apparent. So make that effort to show you are on their side.”

If the conflict is longlasting, there are several ways to cope. You can try calmly confronting your colleague by addressing the issue and asking him or her how to work together to fix it. If this doesn’t work, distancing yourself is not a bad idea. If it’s a legitimate human resources issue, like harassment or abuse, document and keep a history of the problems and then file a complaint. Don’t allow it to become personal. A complaint about inappropriate behavior in the workplace should not become a laundry list of every nasty thing the person has ever done to you. Keep it succinct and professional—be clear about which workplace rules he or she is breaking and how it affects the workplace as a whole.

Another powerful tactic is to take the high road when you’re confronted with negativity. You might even compliment the colleague who tries to undermine you. We can turn it around when somebody seems to be envying us or putting us down. Somehow, highlighting another person’s accomplishments can alleviate a problem. Look inward as well. Take note when you’re thinking and telling yourself negative things, which just might echo the things a toxic person has told you before. Reframe and challenge these negative thoughts with positive viewpoints.

Ultimately, one of the most powerful ways to counter a toxic coworker is to surround yourself with positive people who lift you up and give you healthy energy instead. Make a conscious decision to spend more time with the fun, happy, constructive people in your workplace. Uplifting people are a great counterbalance to toxicity.