What to do if you are experiencing toxic behaviour at work

Grevis Beard
April 3, 2019

Sadly, many of us have first-hand experience of toxic behavior in the workplace.

In 2016 research by Dr Lindsay McMillan, 50% of respondents said they had experienced serious incidents of conflict or negative conduct at work,14% of workers described their workplace environment as ‘toxic’, while 20% had experienced major problems in communication with a co-worker or boss. 

9 steps to help you deal with toxic behaviour at work

If you are experiencing poor behaviour at work, there are some very practical steps you can take to protect yourself and encourage your employer to take action.

1. Don’t engage in gossip or games

While it can sometimes be tempting, don’t get sucked into the emotional games of your toxic co-worker. Many manipulative and high conflict people try to recruit their colleagues into ‘us and them’ scenarios, which undermines otherwise healthy working relationships, causing confusion and conflict. Don’t support this type of behaviour by contributing to this type of conversation or by ending a sympathetic ear.  

Wherever possible, disengage politely and walk away. Say: “Sorry Joe, I’ve got to be back at my desk for a call in 5 minutes”. Don’t get dragged into gossiping or manipulative conversations by the water cooler. Stay true to a strategic and mindful approach, choosing which issues are important to engage with, and which issues you can ignore. 

2. Avoid one-on-one interactions 

Many bullies and harassers work behind-the-scenes, when no witness is present. Avoid one-on-one meetings with the toxic person if you know from experience that you’re likely to get cornered and treated badly. If you need to work late, and this heightens the risks for you, take the work home or only work late when others are there too.

3. Understand your organisation’s policies and complaints process

Many organisations have clearly documented and easily accessible policies relating to organisational values, professional conduct at work, bullying and harassment and defined procedures for making complaints about inappropriate behaviour at work. Take the time to understand these policies and procedures in case you need to use them.

4. Develop allies

Is there someone you trust in the workplace who can help you to navigate the organisational politics, get another perspective about what is going on, understand your rights, and choose the best pathway to assert yourself? It’s OK to de-brief and get support from your colleagues at work, without creating factions or cliques.

5. Document the toxic behaviour

Documenting the toxic behaviour you experience helps put it ‘on the record’. If someone is undermining you using their positional power or other sophisticated ways, send them an email to confirm the content of one-on-one conversations, agreements or meetings, so it’s harder for them to deny later. 

Some employees record toxic behavior on their smartphones as proof in later disciplinary or legal proceedings however this can be risky or iillegal if done without their knowledge and consent. If you are being bullied or harassed, keep a diary of what’s going on that you can use as evidence to support your allegations.

6. Be clear on what you want from HR 

If you are considering involving Human Resources in your efforts to manage toxic behavior, be very clear what you want.

  • Are you telling HR about your efforts to manage the toxic behavior so that it is ‘on the record’, in case it later escalates?
  • Are you seeking their advice?
  • Are you making a formal complaint about a particular incident?

The company may have a legal obligation to take action – particularly for whistleblowers, racism, sexual harassment, bullying or breach of business conduct rules – so raising the matter with HR may result in it being taken out of your hands.

7. Watch your emotional energy

Mindfulness is a great mindset to choose, when you are dealing with a toxic colleague. Think about how you show up at work each morning, and stay present. Get coaching and counselling if that will help you to stay on track. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs that include free and confidential access to counselling. 

The ‘fight or flight’ response is natural when you are dealing with a high conflict person or feel a risk of being harassed, and it’s exhausting! Take regular breaks during the work day if you can, and also take time to recharge outside of work.

8. Hold onto your integrity

Be your best self in the face of adversity, and stay true to your values. Toxic conduct can bring out the worst in others, so each day choose to be better than the bully, the gossip and the underminer. Your integrity will be a source of strength, and you will model presence, grace and dignity to those around you.

9. Leave

If all else fails, the company fails to take action (or you decide that you don’t want to officially complain) and it seems like there is no way to avoid your toxic colleague, then it might be time to find a new job.  If you do you decide to change jobs, make sure you use the exit interview to state honestly the reasons for your departure.

Dealing with a toxic co-worker is never easy. You may not be able to change your colleague’s conduct, but their impact will be reduced with your strategic approach, right mindset and firm resolve.

About Grevis Beard

Grevis Beard is the co-founder and director of Worklogic. Grevis has significant knowledge of the dynamics of workplace disputes and their resolution.

Grevis works with a range of clients to improve workplace communication, investigate inappropriate behaviour at work, manage workplace risks and handle complaints. He is an acclaimed speaker and author.

Worklogic works with employers to resolve workplace  complaints and create a positive culture at work. Please contact us for an obligation-free, confidential discussion on issues at your workplace.

This post is based on an article by Worklogic originally published in Thrive Global.

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