Unfortunately, experiencing toxic behaviour in the workplace is quite common. In 2016 research by Dr Lindsay McMillan, 14% of Australian workers described their workplace environment as ‘toxic’, 20% had experienced major problems in communication with a co-worker, and a massive 50% had experienced serious incidents of conflict or negative conduct at work.
Some employees experience illegal conduct such as bullying and sexual harassment. Also problematic are emotional power plays and high conflict behaviours, such as manipulation, aggression, gossiping, lying and blaming.
One toxic worker’s conduct also has a damaging ripple effect on the broader team, as we describe in our book, Fix Your Team (Wiley, 2018).
If you are experiencing bad treatment at work, the good news is that there are steps you can take to protect yourself and to encourage your employer to take action.
1. Choose your battles
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, and causes confusion and conflict.
Maintain a strategic, deliberate and calm approach. Choose which issues are the most important to respond to, and which issues you can ignore.
2. Make the toxic behaviour visible and ‘on the record’
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.
If someone is undermining you using their positional power or other sophisticated ways, send them an email to confirm the content of conversations and agreements, so it’s harder for them to deny later. Some employees even record toxic behaviour on their smartphones (if this is legal in the state in which you work) in case they need proof later.
3. Develop allies
Is there someone you trust in the workplace who can help you to navigate the organisational politics, understand your rights, and choose the best pathway to assert yourself? It’s OK to de-brief and get support from your friends at work, without creating factions or cliques.
Employees who approach Human Resources for help to manage toxic behaviour must be clear in what they are seeking. Are they putting the toxic behaviour ‘on the record’, in case it later escalates? Are they seeking their advice? Are they making a formal complaint about the other person’s behaviour? The employer may have a legal obligation to take action once it is aware of risks to health or safety, or breach of business conduct rules.
4. 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.
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.
5. 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 everyone, so choose to be better than the bully, the gossip and the underminer. Your integrity will be a source of strength. You will also model presence, grace and dignity to those around you.
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 Rose Bryant-Smith
Rose Bryant-Smith is the co-founder and director of Worklogic and co-author of Fix Your team. She is passionate about building ethical, productive and innovative workplaces. Rose leads projects about organisational ethics, risk management, corporate governance and organisational performance.
Please contact Rose for an obligation-free, confidential discussion on issues at your workplace.
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