Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Sometimes, going to work feels like you’re in Mean Girls. Your coworker talks over you in meetings, or she takes credit for your work. A colleague spreads rumors about you or someone else, and you feel like you’re caught up in high school drama again. Or she refuses to help you out with a project that requires teamwork.

The people with whom we work can make or break our jobs. And if you’re dealing with toxic coworkers, you’re probably feeling like you’re more in the “break” camp. So, how do you deal with these banes of your work life?

What is a toxic coworker?

There are many different types of toxic coworkers. Some behaviors include:

• Creating drama in the workplace

• Doing little work and distracting others from doing their jobs

• Refusing to work with others

• Bossing coworkers around when they’re not actually their boss

• Gossiping and spreading rumors

• Blaming coworkers for problems that are not their fault

• Looking out for their personal interests over the team’s

These are just a few of the many types of toxic coworkers you may encounter, unfortunately.

5 ways to deal with toxic coworkers

So, how do you deal with toxic coworkers? Here are some steps to take. 

1. Avoid engaging.

Remember when you were in middle school and your mom told you to just ignore that mean girl who always picked on you? And you rolled your eyes and said that that was so much easier said than done? Well, your mom was onto something. 

Depending on the type of toxic coworker in your midst, it may be wise to just ignore her. For instance, if she’s always trying to get you to gossip about other people, let her know that you need to do work and would prefer to stay out of the drama. It’s also a good idea to avoid sharing anything other than pertinent work-related information with people like this. After all, you don’t want to be part of the churning rumor mill.

2. Address it directly.

On the flip side, sometimes you need to tackle the issue head-on. Perhaps you hear that your toxic coworker is spreading a rumor about you. Or maybe she undermined you in a meeting or took credit for a project you did. In that case, you should absolutely talk to her about it.

In some cases, you may have misunderstood the situation, so discussing it will give you both a chance to offer your perspective. Either way, it can be important to hash it out to try to keep it from happening again. At the very least, she’ll know that you find her behavior unacceptable.

3. Ask for help.

No one likes to be a tattletale. However, sometimes things escalate to the point at which you simply aren’t in a position to deal with them on your own. If you’ve attempted to resolve this issue with your colleague or believe it is something about which you’re unable to confront her, approach your boss with the problem and discuss potential solutions. Keep in mind that your boss will likely need to involve the toxic coworker in the discussion to try to reach a resolution.

If your boss is the one behaving in a toxic way, of course, it may be difficult to approach her. In that case, try discussing the issue with an HR representative or a manager’s supervisor. Hopefully, this person can offer an objective perspective on the matter at hand.

4. Focus on building positive work relationships.

Toxic coworkers can have a major effect on your work life and personal life. But rather than getting caught up in your problems with one individual, try to concentrate on your relationships with other coworkers. Chances are, you have at least one confidant who offers you a bit of a reprieve from your nightmarish colleague, so focus on that positive connection instead. 

5. Don’t let it fester.

Try not to take your colleague’s behavior personally. Chances are, you’re not the only one with whom she acts this way. If she’s taking credit for your work, she’s probably doing the same with other people and their work — you may have even observed it. If she’s spreading malicious gossip about you, she’s likely done it about someone else. 

It is easy to get wrapped up in the drama of it all and feel down on yourself, as though it has something to do with you and your own personal failings. However, remember that this behavior is a reflection of your coworker, not you. You’re probably not even the real cause of her issue, just her punching bag. If you’re feeling down about the situation, it may help to make a list of your positive work qualities and attributes, especially ones that your toxic coworker fails to recognize or actively demeans, to remind yourself of all your strengths.

What do you do when your coworker is sabotaging you?

Of course, if your coworker is actively sabotaging you, that’s another story. Sabotaging behavior could mean actively stealing credit for your work, lying about you and your contributions, berating you in private or around other people, manipulating you, and so on.

If you feel that your coworker’s behavior has escalated beyond the toxic realm and into the actively sabotaging realm, here are some steps to take:

1. Document everything.

Gather as much evidence as you possibly can. Save all emails and follow up verbal communication with written communication, so you have a paper trail. If you’re working on a project with this person, make notes about every piece you have contributed. Take notes after every conversation, especially if your coworker engaged in demeaning or disrespectful behavior. Write down exact quotes while the conversation is still fresh in your memory if possible.

2. Address the situation with your coworker.

Tread lightly with this one. If you feel that you might be able to salvage the working relationship by discussing it with your coworker, then you should. However, be careful to avoid saying anything that she could potentially use against you in the future, because she probably will.

Still, this can be a helpful step in some scenarios, especially if you fear that you may have done something to upset her in some way. A conversation will give you both an opportunity to address your concerns with one another and try to resolve your issues.

3. Talk to your manager or HR.

In a situation of this level, a conversation with your manager or an HR representative is pretty much unavoidable. Whether or not your manager is your toxic coworker’s manager too, she probably has tools you may not have to help address and rectify the situation.

Plan out what you’re going to say in advance, and reflect on your objectives for the conversation. It’s important to be realistic about your goals. Your coworker isn’t going to suddenly be your best friend, after all; a more realistic goal would be to find a way to work together without feeling like you’re on edge all the time. Present your relevant evidence to help you explain your case. It can also be helpful to come with a few ideas of how you might be able to resolve the problem together.

Do your best to remain calm and rational throughout the conversation. You want to demonstrate that you’re trying to take the high road, here.

Toxic coworkers: the bottom line

Toxic coworkers can suck the joy out of the workplace. Staying above the fray can sometimes seem impossible, but behaving professionally and politely can go a long way in helping you cope with the situation. Remember that ultimately, this is their problem, not yours, and try not to let it negatively affect your work or personal life. 

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