5 effective steps to deal with toxic coworkers

Published on March 16, 2022
How to deal with toxic coworkers

Toxic coworkers are usually at the center of workplace drama. Their disturbing behavior can be a major source of stress and frustration for you and your colleagues. That is why it is important to deal with them as soon as you notice the signs.

The best way to deal with toxic coworkers is to emotionally distance yourself from them and give them immediate, detailed feedback. If this doesn’t help, then you should seek a resolution through proper company channels. Bring the matter to the attention of HR and your company superiors ASAP!

During the course of my career, I have dealt with plenty of toxic people at work. Toxic coworkers are seen as an annoyance but they actually present a serious danger to the integrity of the work environment they are part of.

They can inflict psychological damage to their colleagues and harm team productivity.

Sometimes their behavior can remain unnoticed for long periods of time and the toxicity can seep into the company culture. That is why an immediate intervention is necessary.

Here I will share with you the best advice that I have on how to deal with toxic coworkers.

What are the signs of toxic workers?

Toxic coworkers signs

The signs of toxic coworkers 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 towards individuals
  • Gossiping and talking behind the back
  • Workplace harassment and stalking

What are the types of toxic coworkers?

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. Here are some classic toxic coworker archetypes.

Gossipmonger

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.

Harasser

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.

Schemmers

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!

Power abuser

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.

Micromanager

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.

Passive-aggressive types

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?

Complainer

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.

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.

Dealing with toxic coworkers in 5 effective steps

One of the most common advice given on dealing with toxic coworkers is to just ignore them. Well, let me tell you that this is the last thing that you want to do.

No, really, it is actually the fifth and final step. But there are other major steps that come before that. Here’s how to handle toxic coworkers the right way.

1. Setting boundaries with toxic coworkers

Setting boundaries with toxic coworkers

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.

They can still choose to be disrespectful and inappropriate with you and your colleagues because, at the end of the day, they don’t care about how you feel.

If your toxic coworkers don’t respect the boundaries that you set and continue to oppress you, then you can move on to the rest of the steps.

2. How to protect yourself from toxic coworkers

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 wellbeing 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.
  • Counter measures – Consider your options. You can report your toxic coworker but you can also directly confront them in a more assertive manner. (My advice? Do both!)

3. 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, 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 coworker (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.

4. How to confront toxic coworkers

How to confront 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 coworker 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.

5. How to ignore 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. And here we take a closer look at the most common types of difficult coworkers and explore strategies on how to deal with them.

We asked nearly 500 people about their worst toxic coworker experience

We did a Facebook poll, asking people what was the worst type of toxic coworker they had to cope with. Here are the top 5 results:

  • Rude/aggressive/harassing – 18%
  • Micromanager – 14%
  • Power abuser – 12.4%
  • Gossipmonger/talks behind your back – 8.4%
  • Complainer/passive-aggressive type – 8%

Here is the rest of the poll, showing the top 9 results (a total of 429 votes).

Toxic coworkers poll
(My absolute favorite part about this is that somebody added “Took the job too seriously” and 29 people voted for it.)

Key takeaways

Written by:
OfficeTopics.com
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Alex Alexiev
co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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