Career Woman

5 ways to deal with a toxic co-worker


If you work full-time, you spend more than one third of your waking hours at work. This means that your experiences in the workplace have a big impact on your overall enjoyment of life.

Unfortunately, it’s quite common to experience toxic behaviour in the workplace. In 2016 research by Dr Lindsay McMillan, 14% of Australian workers described their workplace environment as ‘toxic’, and 20% had experienced major problems in communication with a co-worker or boss. A massive 50% had experienced serious incidents of conflict or negative conduct at work. Does this sound familiar to you?

Some employees experience illegal conduct such as bullying and sexual harassment. Emotional power plays and high conflict behaviours – such as manipulation, aggression, gossiping, lying and blaming – can not only ruin your day, but also damage your mental health and wellbeing.

If you are experiencing bad behaviour in the workplace, it’s likely that your morale, job satisfaction, and physical and psychological health will be significantly affected. Sleepless nights and anxiety are common. People who are harassed and bullied are more likely to leave their jobs, and to experience depression, psychological distress and emotional exhaustion.

One toxic worker’s conduct also has a damaging ripple effect on the broader team. Misconduct in the workplace causes team dysfunction, reduced productivity and diverted management attention. Having a toxic employee on the payroll costs the average business an additional $15,169 per year, according to a 2015 Harvard Business School report.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

If you are considering involving Human Resources in your efforts to manage toxic behaviour, be clear what you want. Are you putting the toxic behaviour ‘on the record’, in case it later escalates? Are you seeking their advice? Are you making a formal complaint about the other person’s behaviour? Your employer may have a legal obligation to take action – particularly for bullying, sexual harassment or breach of business conduct rules – so raising the matter with HR may result in it being taken out of your hands. If there are some sexual assault involved, you should consult with the best sexual assault victim lawyer NYC to help you with the right actions to take.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Download free sample chapters of Rose’s new book Fix Your Team here:

About Rose Bryant-Smith

Rose Bryant-Smith is founding co-owner of workplace advisory firm Worklogic, and author of Fix Your Team (Wiley, 2018). Worklogic helps to minimise bad behaviour in the workplace, address conflict and help teams to thrive. Find out more at

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