Dealing with a Toxic Co-Worker

Brooke Hall
September 18, 2019
Brooke Hall

Unless you are particularly blessed (or you’ve worked at Worklogic for your whole working career), we all have to endure difficult colleagues at some stage or another over our working lives. Whatever shape they take (be the serial (but lazy) complainer, the sociopath, the backstabber or the bully) toxic colleagues can, at best, make the already hectic nature of modern work life more difficult and at worst, impact on your mental health and wellbeing.

What is the best path to take when faced with a toxic co-worker?

Get some perspective

As an investigator, if I interview ten people, all present in the same meeting, I can guarantee that they will provide ten different versions of the same event. Sometimes the differences are vast, but normally, I’m told ten slightly nuanced versions of the how the meeting unfolded, the words that were spoken and the tone used. One person’s yelling, for example, is another’s firm voice to “move the meeting on”. What one person perceives as a slight against them, another says was a general comment to the whole group.

What this is, of course, is differing perspectives in action, and when you find yourself questioning the way a co-worker is treating you, it’s important to check your perspective. It’s not an easy to be objective when you feel wronged, but it’s important to:

  • Use your emotional intelligence to consider the extent to which your behaviour may have influenced the way in which your co-worker treated you; and
  • Reflect on other stress factors which may be impacting on the working environment and contributing to the behaviour or negatively affecting how you perceive what is going on. Although you may appear be the target of the poor behaviour, other factors (which may or may not be obvious to you) may be at play.

Whilst not suggesting that you can always make sense of, or excuse, another person’s behaviour towards you, taking some time to try and objectively assess the behaviour, can help you determine the best way forward in dealing with it.

Protect yourself and your integrity

After careful consideration, if you identify that the behaviour is constant and toxic, there are a couple of important steps to take to minimise the effect that the behaviour has on you:

  • Try not to take it personally. Although it doesn’t always appear so, often the toxic behaviour has very little to do with you, and more to do with the other person’s own insecurities and self-esteem. It’s really no different to the school yard. To the extent that it is possible to do so, try and ignore the behaviour. Avoid one-on-one situations with the person and try and surround yourself with positive people.
  • Avoid engaging in gossip or games. Although tempting, stooping to the level of another by rumour mongering or sniping behind someone’s back is never the answer and will likely escalate the issues. Bullies love a fight and will sometimes back down if they don’t get one. Remember that continuing to show respect for another person even when they don’t deserve it is reflection of your character, not theirs. It is important to note however, that there is a difference between gossiping and confiding in a trusted co-worker. Speaking to someone whom you trust might help you 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. That person can not only provide support for you, but might be able to stand up for you should they witness the behaviour.
  • Document the behaviour. Whatever path you choose in terms of dealing with your colleague’s conduct, you will be required to provide examples of toxic behaviour. Documenting those examples, including not only where and when they occurred, what was said or done, but who else was present, will be important if you decide to make a formal complaint.

Resolving the issue

Whichever way you cut it, addressing the toxic behaviour requires some action from you. Some options to consider are:

  • Address the behaviour with the person directly. This option will not be for everyone and will depend on a number of factors, not least of which is your own propensity for “fight” or “flight”. It is possible to have a difficult conversation with the person, outlining the issue, some examples of the behaviour and the impact that it is having on you. Perhaps I prefer to see the best in people, but I do think there are some instances in which people are not intentionally malicious but are honestly ignorant of the impact that their behaviour has on others.
  • Involve HR. If the first option is nightmare inducing for you, consider involving your HR department. Before doing so, you should make sure that you read through your organisation’s policies and procedures for making complaints about inappropriate behaviour at work. This will direct you in setting out what information you’ll need to provide HR, but also, ensure that you understand what processes your organisation must follow in resolving your complaint and the possible outcomes of those processes. Understanding both the processes and outcomes, will help you be clear with your HR department about what assistance you are seeking from them. To the extent that your health is being affected by the toxic behaviour you should certainly raise this with HR or OH&S advisors internally, in order to get help to minimise any adverse impact on you. It might be that it is best for you to remove yourself from the situation if your health is deteriorating as a result of the toxic behaviour.
  • Consider other options. If your options within your organisation are exhausted, you may choose to seeking assistance externally by seeking, for example, an anti-bullying order at the Fair Work Commission or external legal advice.
  • Quit. If you have exhausted the above options, however, it might be that moving on is the best option. Nothing is more important than your health.

Learn more

If you would like to learn more about how to deal with toxic co-workers, then register now to attend Worklogic’s free lunchtime webinar, on Wednesday 25 September, presented by Worklogic Director, Grevis Beard.

About Brooke Hall

Brooke Hall has significant experience in the workplace relations area, having previously worked as a lawyer for 10 years at the now Fair Work Ombudsman. Brooke brings strong communication, investigative and analytical skills in the area of dispute resolution to Worklogic. Her strong client service focus and pragmatic approach ensures clients receive practical solutions to a range of workplace issues.

Worklogic has extensive experience in triaging and resolving workplace complaints.  If you would like advice on a workplace complaint, you can contact Brooke for an obligation-free discussion via email or by calling (03) 9981 6500.

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