While we’d all like to think of a workspace as a safe space open to collaboration and camaraderie, toxic coworkers are all too common, and the repercussions can be bleak. A report by Cornerstone OnDemand found that employees are 54% more likely to quit if they work with a toxic employee, while also recognizing that other negative effects - such as general unhappiness at work or in life - could be caused by a toxic coworkers.
So, how does one walk the fine line of how to communicate with a fellow coworker who is toxic? Here are four tips on how to handle them, so that peace can be restored in your workplace.
1. Understand The Common Traits
First, what defines a toxic coworker? Frankly, the possibilities are vast. Anna Verasai at the HR Digest shared an easy three: they gossip, make you defend yourself, and are often two-faced (they say one thing to you, and another to someone else.) But, the possibilities of toxicity expand far beyond these three. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “does this person show up unproductively to work in a way that erodes the team culture and the company as a whole?”
That’s a loaded question, but it’s common that other employees on your team may have noticed toxicity, too. In general: anyone that makes you feel gaslighted, down about yourself, or is closed off to communication and collaboration can be defined as “toxic.”
2. Set Clear, Actionable Boundaries
Working in close proximity with coworkers who share these negative traits can be emotionally draining and spur uncomfortable and distracting emotions ranging from frustration to hopelessness. So, learning how to engage (or how not to) is critical. Setting boundaries is important for any professional relationship, but most of all for the challenging ones.
People and learning development professional Lisa Gulessarian shared with Thrive Global that boundaries can be established through verbal cues and cutting off conversations short. “Respond in short sentences and unenthusiastically, or to be even more direct, stay silent,” she advises. That way, the coworker has less of an opportunity to use your words against you, speak negatively, or gossip about you.
3. Communicate and Uphold Your Personal Values
Dr. Heidi Brocke is a toxic relationship healing and emotional abuse specialist who has been trained specifically in how to handle toxic people. She recognizes that it’s easy to drift from your personal values when handling a toxic person: especially in frustrating conversations with them. “When you are defending yourself, explaining yourself, and compromising for them your value system may slip as you try to please and avoid conflict. Remember who you are, what you stand for, and why you chose your career,” she advises.
Even simply reminding yourself of your personal values before a conversation can help you center and ground yourself. And even when emotions are stirred, try to speak directly, compassionately, and respectfully - coming from your personal values.
4. Speak with a Supervisor
Sara Stanizei, the founder of Prospect Therapy, shared with Girlboss that when toxicity gets to be too much, it’s recommended to ask a neutral third party to enter the equation. “Consider asking a manager who doesn’t supervise either of you. The goal is to get someone else involved so you can hash out how to make your work relationship better,” she shares. Ideally, this neutral third party can hear both sides and help to foster a resolution.
However, it should be noted that not all toxic situations can be diffused with a neutral third party. If the toxicity has become a game of “he said she said” and includes gossip or a general negative attitude that’s hard to specifically diagnose in a three-way conversation, a productive conversation can be had between you and your supervisor, too. Share your concerns and how it’s impacting your work and the office culture. Leadership wants to identify problems within the workplace and fix them, so bringing it to their attention (if it isn’t already) helps the company on the whole.
You deserve to enjoy the work you do in a workspace that fosters interpersonal collaboration and support. If another’s behavior is threatening this, you have the tools to handle it - whether through your own personal boundaries or by approaching a higher up.