Several large drums with yellow toxic labels on them to symbolise toxic co-workers.
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How to deal with toxic co-workers

31 Jan 2022

We’ve all met different types of toxic co-workers. But how can employees deal with working alongside negative behaviour?

While the workplace has changed drastically for many over the last two years, some challenges within working life remain the same, one of which is toxic co-workers.

Toxic co-workers can take a variety of forms. One could be someone who takes credit for other people’s work. Another could be someone who always has something to complain about and generally brings down morale in the rest of the team. Another could be someone who is overconfident in their abilities or thinks they’re ‘above’ the rules.

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The list of ways in which someone could be a toxic colleague goes on. Many of us have met at least one type through our working lives, but companies can gain a lot from going through a detox.

In fact, a 2015 Harvard Business School study of 50,000 workers said avoiding a toxic worker, or at least converting them to an average worker, enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a so-called ‘superstar’ worker.

The study also found that when employees are exposed to toxic co-workers, it increases the likelihood that they too will become toxic.

So, while it’s in a company’s best interest to weed out, improve or simply avoid those who have the potential to be toxic workers, what can their co-workers do to deal with them?

Don’t get sucked in

As the Harvard Business School study suggests, toxic behaviour can breed more toxic behaviour, so be careful not to get sucked into your co-worker’s negativity, bad habits or generally questionable behaviour.

We all need to vent about things from time to time but be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole of complaining a lot because it will just keep a cycle of negativity going.

If there is genuinely something you feel strongly about that you think should be addressed, it’s best to talk to your manager about it.

Set boundaries

When a toxic co-worker is constantly coming to you to vent, it can be incredibly draining. It’s important to distance yourself from that as much as you can to avoid being brought down by negativity.

For other forms of toxic behaviour, the boundaries might be a little more difficult to set. Start by knowing what to expect from that person and limit how often you’re exposed to bad behaviour.

For example, to work around someone known to take credit for other’s work, you might find a way to share your ideas with other team members first.

Check in with yourself

Because a toxic co-worker can be quite exhausting, it’s important to regularly check in with yourself and take your metaphorical temperature.

Have your thoughts around work and other colleagues become more negative? Are you starting to feel more aggravated than usual? Do you find yourself agreeing with your toxic colleague more and more as time goes on?

It’s important to keep an eye on these feelings because they may not be completely organic and are more than likely developing due to too much exposure to toxicity.

Focus on what you can control

Once you’ve checked in with your own feelings and are able to decipher where the negativity is coming from, take the time to look after yourself and regroup.

Even with the right boundaries in place, you still have to work with this person and, outside of talking to them about their negativity, you are not able to control their behaviour.

Therefore, it’s important to focus on what you can control, which is your own feelings and reactions to a toxic co-worker.

Seek help

Finally, if the toxic behaviour is becoming detrimental to your working life or severely effecting you, it might be time to seek help from your manager or other colleagues.

You may be hesitant to talk to HR about the situation, but other members of your team might have noticed similar behaviour and be able to help you deal with it.

Equally if your team lead or manager isn’t aware of how a particular employee is affecting the rest of the team, it might be worth bringing it to their attention so that they can manage the situation better.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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