Career

How To Handle That Toxic Work Colleague

Nothing is worse than having to go to work every day and deal with a true prick of a co-worker – the overbearing, gossipy, negative, manipulative, combative type you can’t seem to escape. Life isn’t always fair; you’re not always going to get along with everyone, and dealing with different types of personalities in a work environment is a skill you need to master. Here’s what you can do if you find yourself in that situation, without jeopardising your own success.

You don’t need to be afraid of rocking the boat, or put up with unprofessional behaviour. You also shouldn’t be put off by lengthy corporate procedures, or see resignation as your only way out. If you’re legitimately dealing with workplace bullying, harassment or toxic behaviour, there really are things you can do about it.

Who are we dealing with?

Toxic colleagues aren’t necessarily overtly mean or condescending, and as such the impact of their actions can be difficult to identify until they have you seriously doubting your skills. Meredith Fuller, psychologist and author of Working with Bitches, says there are a number of different types workmates you should be wary of, and understanding their actions can help to remedy the situation before it gets worse.

The Excluder

Some, which Fuller calls “excluders,” may make you wonder if you’re invisible and often fail to acknowledge your requests or pass on important information, while there are those who are out of their depth and resent your attempts to help (even if you are cleaning up their mess). It can make you feel unimportant and disrespected; like your contribution doesn’t matter.

The Micro-Manager

Micro-managers clearly have control issues, and they basically project their insecurities and concerns onto you, which takes the form of finding issue with your work at every turn.

The Narcissist

There are those whose narcissistic tendencies mean they’re only interested in themselves, their progress and their entitlements (and will gladly treat colleagues as objects to do their bidding).

Bonus types

Then there are the effortless liars, and perma-angry workers who turn every little thing into a huge drama. Truly toxic colleagues might try to marginalise you or take credit for your ideas.

“If the behaviour impacts on the outcomes and quality of organisational tasks, and if the behaviour impacts on your mental health, [it’s time to seek help],” Fuller says.

When you can’t get away

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Under different circumstances, steering clear of your office nemesis could solve most of your problems – in fact, putting some distance between you (both physically and mentally) is the first action you should take.

But things are more complicated when you work in close quarters on a daily basis: you might be part of the same team – or worse – report to the person who’s making you miserable.

Peter Wilson, chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says it’s important to bear in mind that there are two legal avenues in place to protect you should you find yourself up against a toxic colleague.

First, your employer (and the employer of the colleague in question) has a duty of care to their employees and is legally required to provide a healthy and safe work environment. The second, known as the Bullying and Harassment Provision, means you’re protected from predatory behaviour – whether it’s from a colleague or a manager – under Fair Work laws.

“There are employment laws to protect you,” Wilson says. These policies are biased slightly in favour of the employee, so the onus is on those in charge to ensure everything’s above board. “[In my experience], the vast majority of employers are aghast when they hear of these kinds of issues and want to rectify them positively.”

But how can you work it out before it gets legal?

Step #1: Figure out if it’s legit

Fuller says an important step on the road to resolution is to confirm your experience is actually real. If you take a step back from the situation and try to see things objectively – and it’s still not sitting right – she recommends debriefing with a trusted colleague, partner, family member or friend.

“You’re likely to feel comfortable talking with those closest to you before considering what you might do next,” Fuller says. “They may have been through similar experiences and can share their learnings, or [offer] support while you plan a course of action. They may [also] ensure that you seek professional support, rather than convince yourself that it doesn’t really matter.”

Your friends and family will also know you well enough to call you out on your own bullshit.

Step #2: Go on strategic defence

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You can’t control how others act, but you have complete control over how you do.

Don’t allow the toxicolleague to take up valuable headspace – all that will do is have you obsessing over them and could impact your work. It’s super difficult to do, but try to remove the emotion from your reactions and responses to the culprit.

You can also be positive – it’s easy to react, snap back, or get into a negative headspace when you feel you’re being disrespected. So try to focus on being considerate and professional. Let them have their say in discussions and meetings, try not to take things personally, and put down boundaries if they cross the line. Then, you have covered your bases and are visibly behaving professionally. This juxtaposition might even highlight to others in the workplace that the colleague has toxic behaviour, which isn’t a bad thing.

Step #3: Speak to your colleague 

If that doesn’t shift things, it might be time to have a chat with them. This doesn’t necessarily mean locking yourselves in a white-walled room under a spotlight while secretly recording the conversation on your phone; depending on the level of discomfort, it might be as low key as going for a coffee to work things through with one another.

But if the situation calls for something a little more structured and formal, or you know the colleague in question has zero chill, Wilson says an ally can help, especially if the colleague who’s giving you grief intimidates you. “It’s best that you [confront the toxic colleague] with someone who can support you and bear witness to any retaliatory response the[y] might have.

Step #4: Take it to the top but be prepared

“If that doesn’t work – that is, if the person doesn’t change their behaviours and you still feel to be a victim – you should talk to the HR Manager or, if it’s a small organisation, your CEO,” Wilson says.

If you’re at that point (where the situation warrants escalation), both Wilson and Fuller agree it helps to be prepared: take notes of the dates and times of particular incidents in which you’ve felt victimised (including your initial confrontation with the offender), and be sure you’re detailing behaviour and actions, not personality traits. You want to be noting down fact not feeling.

“Most employers will try to rectify [this type of situation] internally,” says Wilson. Your HR Manager or CEO aren’t emotionally involved and will work out what’s best for the situation.

Look after yourself 

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Dealing with someone who seems to have it out for you for upwards of 38 hours a week can be an emotional and draining process, especially when your professional reputation is at stake, so it’s important to ensure you’re caring for your mental health.

Fuller says a few time-honoured stress-relief techniques can help you see it through: focus on deep breathing when you’re feeling anxious; ensure you’re getting adequate sleep; try journaling or meditation to keep things in perspective; air your grievances with a psychologist or trusted friend; and blow off some steam through exercise (boxing, anyone?)

“Don’t be fearful of raising [these types of issues] with an employer, but help yourself,” Wilson says. “If you’ve got a good track record, evidence of what’s happened, a friend to support you and have attempted to engage [with the perpetrator] directly, you’ll be fine.”


Kristen Amiet is a freelance journalist, maker of Nutella cheesecake, and Harry Potter tragic, covering health, food, travel, and women’s interest. She Tweets and ‘grams at @KrissiAmiet