21 effective steps to deal with toxic coworkers
In the complex web of professional relationships that constitutes the modern workplace, encountering toxic coworkers has become an all-too-common challenge, demanding the development of strategies for navigating these treacherous waters.
Embarking on this crucial journey to maintain your psychological well-being and professional success, we shall endeavor to illuminate the path towards triumphing over the malevolent forces that threaten to undermine the harmony and productivity of our professional environments.
With a steadfast commitment to fostering meaningful, resilient relationships, this article will provide you with invaluable insights and practical tools to confront and, ultimately, transcend the pernicious influence of toxic coworkers.
In doing so, you shall fortify your position within the intricate hierarchy of your professional realm, cultivating a more harmonious and fulfilling work experience.
Table of Contents
What is a toxic coworker
A "toxic coworker," broadly conceived, is an individual in the professional landscape who exudes a deleterious influence upon the collective well-being and productivity of the group. Such a person can manifest their toxicity through a variety of insidious means, including but not limited to manipulative behavior, incessant complaining, and the undermining of others' achievements.
The toxic coworker often seeks to impose chaos upon the orderliness of the workplace, disrupting the intricate balance required for the pursuit of noble goals and the attainment of professional success.
Inextricably tangled in the psyche of the toxic colleague is an unconscious desire for power or validation, often stemming from unresolved personal issues.
As the great psychologist Carl Jung posited, the shadow—the repressed, darker aspect of our personality—may express itself in unseemly ways when left unexamined.
To identify and address the presence of a toxic coworker, one must practice vigilant self-awareness and cultivate an environment of open communication, where sincerity and truth prevail.
This effort demands courage and resilience, as it involves confronting our own shortcomings and those of others. In doing so, however, we may succeed in rescuing our workplace from the grip of malevolence and restore it to a state of harmony and productivity.
Toxic coworker signs
The signs of a toxic coworker are very easy to spot if you know what you are looking for. Usually, all it takes is a few days of observations and interactions. Here are some classic signs of toxic coworkers that should raise some red flags immediately when you notice them.
- Insensitive sarcasm and humor
- Rude and aggressive behavior
- Blaming others for own mistakes
- Controlling and manipulative behavior
- Frequent complaining and negativism
- Use of diminishing/degrading language
- Being disrespectful toward individuals
- Gossiping and talking behind the back
- Workplace harassment and stalking
(This Harvard Business School paper points out that toxic workers not only lower productivity but also present serious legal risks for an organization.)
Types of toxic coworkers
There are various toxic coworker types. Some of them are quite easy to spot due to their unfiltered behavior and unpleasant demeanor. But others can be quite sneaky and secretive – they can be hard to spot but their treacherous ways will eventually become evident.
We asked 429 professionals about their worst toxic coworker experience. Here are the types of toxic traits that stood out the most in our report.
Rude/aggressive/harassing – 18%
About 18% of the professionals we approached stated that their worst toxic coworker experience was with a rude, aggressive, harassing type of colleague. These are your typical bullies. The aggressive ones.
They love to get confrontational. They prey upon the weak. They love to threaten and they wish to be perceived as tough and dangerous. Oh, and if they find you attractive, expect a friend request on all your social media very soon.
Micromanager – 14%
The second most significant toxic coworker trait was micromanagement. This is the type of colleague who doesn't trust you with your work. Frankly, you are incompetent in their eyes. That is why they are there for you. Always. Breathing in your neck. Making sure that everything you do is done the way it should be. Their way. Like a true micromanaging coworker does.
Power abuser – 12.4%
What happens when an immoral person takes a position of power? Essentially, you are dealing with a tyrant. These are the bosses and managers that text you on a Saturday because there’s a task that needs to be handled ASAP.
Gossipmonger/talks behind your back – 8.4%
Some people just love gossip. The problem is when they bring this behavior to the office. Learning that people are talking behind your back and spreading rumors is never a pleasant thing.
Complainer/passive-aggressive type – 8%
These are the people who are never satisfied. With anything. It’s a busy day in the office? They will tell you about it. The air conditioner in the office is not set to their preferred temperature? My friend, you will be living in a Shakespearean drama until the end of the workday.
These are the linguistic virtuosos who have mastered the exquisite art of delivering snarky remarks. If sarcasm could kill, you’d be the centerpiece of a crime scene. It is a sure sign you are dealing with a coworker with passive-aggressive tendencies.
Or they might choose to ignore you. Poof! You are invisible! You do not exist. This will show you your place. And if you ever speak to them, be prepared to witness a very obvious eye-roll. Do you think that they practice it in front of a mirror?
Incompetent coworkers (combined result)
In the realm of workplace dynamics, toxicity can manifest in various forms. One such form, often overlooked, is the presence of incompetence. (We can easily summarize that those who "do not understand and respect professional boundaries" and those who "neglect their professional responsibilities" are downright incompetent.)
Incompetent coworkers, though not necessarily malicious, can become a significant source of strain and disruption within the team. They, too, fall within the purview of toxic coworkers, posing a challenge that demands careful attention and a thoughtful approach.
These are the opportunists. The backstabbers. The people who will throw you under the bus to save their skin. The people who are actively trying to sabotage you so they can get a promotion. Who knows, they might be trying to get you fired. Watch out!
Narcissist Coworker (special mention)
There is a certain type of person who deserves a special mention. Of course, we are talking about the narcissist. Narcissism in the workplace is a recognized phenomenon and it actually explains many of these toxic behaviors that we are observing.
Some notable behaviors of a narcissistic coworker include:
- Struggle with authority and criticism
- Dominating team meetings and group conversations
- Taking credit for other people's work and ideas
- Being overly competitive
- Being possessive and controlling
If you think that your toxic coworker is actually a narcissist, then make sure to check our extensive guide on how to spot a narcissist in the workplace and how to deal with them effectively.
Remember that a coworker can be toxic in more than one way! A person can be passive-aggressive and complain a lot. A manager can be both a harasser and a control freak.
How to deal with toxic coworkers
Here we will take a closer look at certain perspectives and strategies that will help you to deal with toxic people in the workplace. But remember that you know your situation best. So think carefully about which of these apply to you and how you can adapt to your own circumstances.
1. Practice emotional distance
The first step in how to deal with bad coworkers is to not take anything your toxic coworkers say or do personally. Emotional distance is a valuable skill that every professional should cultivate. It is one of the best ways to keep your emotions under control in the workplace and not let them get in the way of rational thought.
2. Take responsibility for your part in this
Recognize that you play a role in shaping the dynamics of your workplace, regardless of where you stand in the corporate hierarchy. You should strive to create an atmosphere that fosters collaboration, respect, and growth, even in the presence of toxicity and negative coworkers.
3. Raise your voice by setting boundaries
One of the most important principles when working with toxic coworkers is to set boundaries with them. This means explaining to them what actions and behavior are not acceptable.
The best way to do that is to give them detailed feedback immediately and on the spot when the toxic demeanor is evident. Here are some examples of how to respond to rude and disrespectful coworkers.
- "Hey, please don't say things like that!"
- "What you just did is not cool!"
- "Please don't talk to me like that, it's quite disrespectful."
It all comes down to the specifics of the situation. But the basic formula is to tell them to hold up and to explain that what they said or what they did does not sit right with you.
Of course, there is no guarantee that your wishes and views will be respected. Your toxic coworker may continue to do as they please.
4. Seek understanding
To handle toxic coworkers properly, you must attempt to discern the underlying motivations of the toxic individual, as this may reveal the roots of their behavior and enable you to address the issue more effectively. This is something that might take a while but eventually, you might be able to figure out what their problem is.
5. Engage in open dialogue
If you deem that it is a good idea, Invite the toxic coworker to engage in honest conversation, creating an opportunity for mutual understanding and resolution of conflict. If you are able to have an honest conversation, you might bond and the toxic behavior might cease.
6. Practice empathy
Understand that the toxic coworker's behavior may stem from deep-seated pain or insecurity. Cultivating compassion may help you navigate the relationship with greater wisdom and patience.
7. Focus on your professional goals
Keep your professional objectives at the forefront of your mind, as this will help maintain perspective and mitigate the influence of toxic individuals.
8. Embrace humility
Recognize that you, too, possess flaws and are susceptible to lapses in judgment. By admitting your imperfections, you pave the way for growth and self-improvement.
9. Foster a supportive network
Cultivate relationships with colleagues who share your values and can provide emotional support during challenging times. The coworkers you get along with just fine will likely share your views and together you can work to create a better work environment for yourself.
10. Utilize assertive communication
When addressing concerns with a toxic coworker, express your thoughts and feelings confidently, yet respectfully. Realize that staying silent and not taking action comes at a price.
11. Document incidents
Keep a record of any inappropriate behavior, as this may prove useful in the event that escalation becomes necessary. This record can serve later on as evidence in front of HR. Remember to document online communication as well and take screenshots if necessary.
12. Engage in self-reflection
Regularly examine your own behavior to ensure that you are not contributing to the toxicity in the workplace. Some toxic behaviors are contagious – frequent complaining without offering real resolutions to problems is a common behavior that is easy to adopt.
13. Implement self-care
Prioritize your physical, mental, and emotional well-being to build resilience in the face of adversity. Dealing with toxic coworkers is hard so do your best to properly unwind after work and leave your worries behind.
14. Seek guidance
Consult with mentors, supervisors, or human resources professionals for advice on how to navigate difficult workplace situations. Even a more experienced coworker might be able to offer you valuable advice on how to deal with your particular situation.
15. Develop emotional intelligence
Cultivate the ability to recognize, understand, and manage your emotions, as well as those of others, to foster healthy interpersonal relationships. Emotional intelligence is a valuable skill to have in a professional setting because it helps to better understand and work with people.
16. Embrace conflict resolution
Adopt a problem-solving mindset when addressing workplace issues, rather than resorting to avoidance or passive-aggressive behavior. Ask yourself “What can I do to solve this problem?” instead of ruminating or complaining.
17. Recognize the limits of control
Accept that you cannot change the behavior of others but can only control your own reactions and choices. Still, this doesn't mean that you should not stand up for yourself and what's right.
18. Pursue professional development
Focus on honing your skills and knowledge, thereby increasing your value and resilience in the workplace. Nowadays you can easily start online courses and obtain desired professional qualifications. Check our review on Google Certificates, for example.
19. Uphold your principles
Stand firmly by your values and ethical standards, even in the face of pressure or adversity. Especially if some of the workplace toxicity that you witness comes from shady practices.
20. Embody gratitude
Acknowledge the challenges posed by toxic coworkers as opportunities for growth and self-improvement, as they may ultimately lead to the development of strength, wisdom, and resilience.
21. Evaluate your options
If your workplace environment becomes unbearable, consider seeking new opportunities that align with your values and professional goals. In fact, we have a complete guide that explains step by step the best way to leave a toxic workplace.
How to work with toxic coworkers
Working with toxic people is challenging and stressful but not impossible. Here are a few tips on how to cope with toxic coworkers and ensure that you remain productive at work.
1. Maintain professionalism
Regardless of the coworker's behavior, ensure that you uphold the highest standards of professionalism in all interactions.
2. Pick your battles carefully
Determine which issues are worth addressing and which can be overlooked in the interest of productivity and collaboration. Avoid engaging in unnecessary conflicts.
3. Keep communication clear
Be concise, transparent, and assertive when communicating with toxic coworkers, which may minimize misunderstandings and foster better teamwork.
4. Focus on the task
Center your attention on the project or task at hand, rather than getting caught up in interpersonal conflicts or the toxic coworker's behavior.
5. Practice active listening
Show genuine interest in understanding the toxic coworker's perspective by attentively listening to their ideas and concerns, which may foster a more collaborative relationship.
6. Be solution-oriented
When faced with challenges or disagreements, work together to find mutually beneficial solutions, emphasizing the importance of teamwork and shared goals.
7. Find common ground
Identify areas of shared interest or agreement to foster a sense of cooperation and facilitate collaboration.
8. Recognize their strengths
Acknowledge and appreciate the positive attributes and skills of toxic coworkers, leveraging their talents to promote successful collaboration.
9. Provide constructive feedback
Offer specific, well-intentioned feedback to toxic coworkers when necessary, focusing on their behavior rather than their character. This may help them become more self-aware and encourage a more collaborative attitude.
10. Stay resilient
Remain emotionally grounded and maintain a positive outlook, despite the challenges of working with toxic coworkers. This resilience will contribute to your ability to collaborate effectively and maintain a healthy work environment.
How to protect yourself from toxic coworkers
So, your detailed and timely feedback didn’t put an end to the toxic behavior. Now what? Your next priority is figuring out how to survive the toxic coworkers you are up against.
You might be dealing with backstabbers, schemers, and even workplace harassers. Whatever it is, all these behaviors have one thing in common: they present a danger to your well-being and the other morally good people you work with.
So take active steps to protect yourself from your toxic colleagues. Here are 4 effective ways to do that.
- Emotional distance – Don't take anything they do and say personally. Don't allow them to get a reaction out of you. Be patient and mindful. Dealing with toxic coworkers can be very mentally exhausting.
- Don’t underestimate them – The level of pathology you are dealing with is uncertain. Be very careful from now on. Anticipate their next move.
- Psychological safety – Assume a position of power. Realize that you are not voiceless. Prepare yourself to take action. You can even quietly look for another job if the situation is particularly dire.
- Countermeasures – Consider your options. You can report your toxic colleague but you can also directly confront them in a more assertive manner. (My advice? Do both!)
How to report toxic coworkers
By reporting your toxic coworkers to the relevant people within your company, you have the best possible odds to put an end to the unpleasant situation. And don’t feel bad about going behind anyone’s back, this is the right and responsible way to approach the matter. Here’s what you should do.
Report them to your boss
If you trust your boss, then you should ask them to talk privately. It’s best to meet face to face.
Explain the situation the way you see it. And make sure to bring facts to the table. Point out to them exactly what is wrong and how the behavior of your toxic coworkers is detrimental to the company, your colleagues, and yourself. Tell your truth!
Remember that your work problems are your boss’s problems as well. Part of their job is to ensure your well-being and your ability to be productive. They won't be happy that one or more employees are tormenting other staff members, and they will take immediate action.
Report them to HR
One of the primary functions of HR is to ensure the wellbeing of all staff. Experienced HR professionals are usually aware of the possibility that some employees may turn out to be immoral. They know how to handle toxic coworkers.
So talk to an HR representative and report your toxic coworker(s). In case your manager is the one being toxic, then your only option is to talk to HR. And make sure to bring any evidence that you have such as direct messages and emails.
It would be best if you are accompanied by a colleague who shares your views. You should expect an immediate reaction. Your toxic colleague (or your boss) will probably be summoned later on and questioned.
Depending on the degree of their offense, there will be different consequences. They might get away with a warning. Or they could very well be fired if they have breached company policy and conducted gross misconduct.
If dealing with toxic coworkers on a daily basis is bringing too much stress into your life and your company is doing nothing to solve this problem, then consider adopting the quiet quitting mindset as it can help you to cope with this unpleasant situation until you are able to find a better workplace for you.
How to respond to toxic coworkers
Now that you have dealt with your toxic coworker(s) through the proper company channels, you can choose to confront them whenever you feel attacked by them in any way whatsoever. Here's how you can approach this.
- It is best to do it immediately on the spot.
- Call them out in front of everybody.
- Make a scene.
- Show them that they are messing with the wrong person.
- Expose them for what they are.
Don’t allow them to get away with their immoral behavior. No matter how subtle their toxic demeanor might be, you can easily expose toxic coworkers by pointing out exactly how they are harming their colleagues and the company culture.
If you don’t confront your toxic colleague eventually, they will likely continue to say offensive things or act in a way that diminishes you. This will build more tension between you and the situation will get even worse. Also, make sure to report them once again so they can suffer the consequences.
How to ignore toxic coworkers
So how to avoid toxic coworkers? Having done everything in your power to put an end to the toxic behavior, you can take a step back and see if your actions will bring forth any change.
Meanwhile, here’s how to distance yourself from toxic coworkers.
- Don't speak to them.
- Block them on social media.
- Pretend that they do not exist.
- Don't respond to their remarks.
- Distance yourself physically from them.
- Don't interact with them outside of work.
Interact with them only when necessary and when work is concerned. You ignoring them should not come at the price of normal workplace communication.
As I explained, ignoring toxic coworkers is the very last step of the process. But don’t limit yourself to it, don’t waste energy wondering how to avoid toxic coworkers’ interactions when you have the ability to bring forth a solution to the problem.
Be strong and take the proper steps in order to rid your workplace of any toxic behavior for the sake of your well-adjusted colleagues and the prosperity of the company that you work for.
My experience working with toxic people
During the course of my career as a project manager for an international tech company, I had been navigating the complex labyrinth of workplace dynamics for over a decade. Throughout my tenure, I had encountered my fair share of toxic coworkers, from the overtly hostile to the subtly incompetent.
Yet, I remained steadfast in my pursuit of a harmonious and productive work environment, guided by the principles of behavioral psychology, negotiation tactics, and tactical empathy.
In one particular instance, I found myself working alongside a colleague who was both passive-aggressive and resistant to collaboration.
Recognizing the potential harm to our team's performance, I decided to employ behavioral psychology to address the issue. By observing the triggers and patterns of this colleague's actions, I identified the underlying insecurities and fears that drove his toxic behavior.
Armed with this knowledge, I carefully crafted my interactions to minimize these triggers and alleviate his anxieties, gradually fostering a more positive and cooperative demeanor.
As I continued to encounter various forms of toxicity, I honed my negotiation skills, employing tactics such as active listening, reframing, and finding common ground.
When disagreements arose, I ensured that everyone's perspective was heard and acknowledged, cultivating an atmosphere of mutual respect. By reframing the conflict in terms of shared goals and objectives, I steered the conversation away from personal attacks and towards constructive problem-solving.
Tactical empathy is something I learned about from former FBI hostage negotiator Chriss Voss in his book Never Split the Difference. This is the ability to genuinely understand and appreciate the emotions and experiences of others.
It proved invaluable in dealing with toxic coworkers. By putting myself in their shoes, I gained insights into their motivations and concerns, allowing me to address the root causes of their behavior. Through empathy, I was able to forge stronger connections and create an environment where each team member felt valued and understood.
Over the years, I have faced numerous challenges in my quest to foster a productive work environment. However, by consistently applying the principles of behavioral psychology, negotiation tactics, and tactical empathy, I successfully transformed the dynamics within my team.
By addressing the underlying issues that drive toxicity, I was able to create a workplace culture in which collaboration and growth could flourish, paving the way for a more harmonious and effective organization.
Frequently asked questions about dealing with toxic coworkers
How should I approach a conversation with a toxic coworker about their behavior?
The best way to approach a conversation with a toxic coworker is with honesty and good intentions. Your focus should be to achieve a resolution rather than escalating the situation even further. You can even clearly state that your goal with this conversation is to avoid a conflict and come to a peaceful conclusion.
When is it appropriate to involve a supervisor or human resources professional in addressing issues with a toxic coworker?
It is appropriate to involve your HR reps and company higher-ups when a coworker behaves in a totally unprofessional, counterproductive, or downright dangerous way.
Can toxic coworkers change their behavior?
Most people, especially in a professional setting, have the capacity to change for the better. If you are able to clearly communicate to your coworker why their behavior is toxic and detrimental to the work environment, then perhaps they might listen and make efforts to change their ways. It is worth trying!
At what point should I consider seeking alternative employment opportunities if the situation with a toxic coworker does not improve?
You should consider looking for another job in case the amount of stress you are dealing with because of toxic coworkers is unbearable, especially if the unpleasant situation at work starts to affect your personal life. And if you start looking for another job, make sure to check our guide on how to spot a toxic work environment so you won't end up in the same situation again.