Dealing with a Toxic Colleague

No matter your industry, you’ve likely had the unfortunate experience of trying to cope with  negative or otherwise toxic colleagues. You know who they are. They’re the coworkers who backbite, gossip, bully, undermine, complain, and generally suck the energy from you and your team. They’re selfish and exhausting. Some are truly unethical or corrupt. They change the tenor of a room the moment they enter. When a toxic colleague’s name appears on an incoming call, you think twice before answering – if you answer at all.

 While dealing with toxic colleagues can be a daily challenge on a personal level, according to a recent Harvard Business School Study,[1] “even relatively modest levels of toxic behavior can cause major organizational cost, including customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover, and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders.”

 If you’re like most people, you’d be astonished to know how much time you waste even thinking about toxic people at work, let alone dealing with the repercussions of their poisonous conduct. So it’s well worth understanding how to deal with, and eradicate where possible, such destructive behavior.

 If you are not in a position to terminate a toxic employee yourself and must contend with him or her as a colleague, there are some ways you can respond and set boundaries that will allow you to remain productive and diminish personal strain.

·      Keep your distance. Create physical and emotional space between you and your toxic coworker.[2] Engage with them as little as you are able, depending upon your job. Toxic people are often just seeking attention, so keeping it from them may serve to minimize their provocative conduct.

·      Counter negativity. If you feel comfortable defending a colleague who’s being undermined or gossiped about, or supporting a team member’s decision or action, do so tactfully. Letting a toxic coworker know that you find their comments off-base might cause them to think twice before sharing them further.

·      Respond with brevity or even silence. If you don’t feel comfortable countering negativity, then don’t. Simply don’t engage in caustic conversation and avoid responding at all to inappropriate comments – particularly those made via text or e-mail. Even a smile and a hurried “Excuse me, I have a meeting” can get you out of an unwanted breakroom interaction if necessary.

·      Reward positive behavior. If, by chance, the ordinarily offensive coworker behaves in a supportive or positive manner, acknowledge it genuinely.

·      Don’t stoop to their level. You won’t be happy if you roll around in the mud, so to speak, with a toxic person. Maintain your own high, personal standards when dealing with them, and with the rest of your colleagues, that serve as an example.

Of course, some colleagues are so toxic that the only way to decontaminate a workspace entirely is to eliminate the poison. If you have tried as best you can to improve your relationship with a particular colleague, or at least minimized your engagement, but have had little success, seek the advice of an HR professional. Leaving your job to get away from a toxic coworker should be a remedy of last resort.

If you are in a position to make an employment decision about such a person, don’t wait until they’ve caused irreparable damage – including the loss of valuable team members – before you take action. Regardless of a toxic employee’s skill set or experience, behavior that negatively impacts an entire team of people is bad for business.

Ridding your team of a toxic employee, as you might suspect, has its challenges. Be as detailed as possible when documenting the events justifying the termination. It’s relatively straightforward to justify termination for provable ethical violations or corruption. But what about less egregious behavior? Avoid vague claims like “you have a bad attitude” or “you’re too negative.” Rather, cite real examples of toxic behavior – e.g., “you screamed at Susan in a meeting” or “you claimed Dave’s work as your own”, etc.

 Sadly, the conduct that has made the employee toxic to begin with can make terminating their employment a more delicate undertaking than usual. In today’s ruthless online world, unhappy, insecure ex-employees seeking revenge can do a lot of damage to individuals and former employers on company sites and across social media. (This can be more immediately damaging than an eventual legal action by the employee.) So, in addition to the standard practice of managing the termination in the presence of an HR representative, you should request from the employee a legally binding separation agreement that protects the company from slander.

 The above are a few ways you can manage the unfortunately all-too-common presence of toxic colleagues in your office. The list is not exhaustive, but will hopefully serve as a starting point to help make your team as healthy and mutually supportive as possible.

[1] Housman, Michael and Minor, Dylan (2015) Toxic Workers. Harvard Business School Paper No. 16-057. Available at: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/16-057_d45c0b4f-fa19-49de-8f1b-4b12fe054fea.pdf.

[2] Burkus, David (2018, November 2) How to Deal with Toxic Coworkers, Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-leadership/201811/how-deal-toxic-coworkers.