Work It Out

The best way to deal with a toxic coworker


Dear Work It Out,

I've had a state job with a university for over seven years. It's a small office, and the boss is pretty hands-off as long as we are doing what we need to. His deputy, the one who covers when he's out, is a cold snake. If she ever became the actual boss, I would walk out on the spot. The good news is that she is going to a different department soon, but our boss found out about it through an email and is angry at her.

The office is tense now. He won't talk to her, and she waits until he's gone to make snide criticisms. She is not allowed to leave until she is replaced, and the process is dragging on. It is very unpleasant to be around her when the boss is out.

Should I push back on her directly when she makes these comments? Not to defend him, but to say, 'I don't want your hate and venom in my workplace'? I'd rather avoid conflict and let it go, but there is no end in sight! I have a good relationship with the boss and spoke to him about addressing his issues with her directly, but he honestly admitted the cut is too deep for him to get over. What do you think I should do?

Yikes! That sounds uncomfortable.

Small offices can often feel like families, and unfortunately yours is a rather dysfunctional one. Mommy and Daddy are fighting, and you're caught in the middle. It's a difficult position to be in.

Whenever you're dealing with a toxic coworker, you really only have two choices: to confront the person or to ignore them.

Many people might opt for the latter, and it's not a bad idea. She isn't directing her ire at you; you're just collateral damage.

If you go this route, the secret to maintaining your sanity is to practice emotional detachment. You want to establish a barrier between you and your coworker's negativity. If you do not guard yourself against the intense emotions that are flying around, you will certainly fall victim to them.

Stanford professor and organizational psychologist Robert Sutton has a useful mental trick for keeping your emotional distance: Pretend you're a scientist studying a foreign environment and its strange inhabitants. Observe how she acts and speaks and how others respond. "What a bizarre and fascinating way of communicating," you might think.

If you approach your coworkers like an anthropologist, you will be less likely to take what they do or say personally. You may even gain a greater understanding of them and their possible motives.

The other option, of course, is to address the person's behavior directly. Most people hate this idea because, well, it sounds confrontational, and we tend to think all confrontations are bad.

I happen to believe that tackling the issue head-on, even if it is uncomfortable in that moment, can save you a lot of strife in the long run.

For one, people will treat you however you allow them to. If you accept someone's constant complaining and negativity and never challenge it, they will assume you are okay with it. You are responsible for setting your own boundaries.

Second, I'm continually amazed at how little self-awareness most people have and how frequent miscommunications can be. (In fact, my latest life and management hack is to use the simple clarifying phrase, "What do you mean by that?" You'd be surprised at how quickly it clears up any confusion or suspicion of ill will.)

Your coworker may be fixated on her own office drama with the boss, and might not realize the impact it's having on you. If you address it, be sure not to blame her, since that would instantly put her on the defensive. Instead, point out the specific behaviors and why they are problematic for you.

For instance, the next time she makes a snide remark, considering saying something like: "I know you probably don't mean to, but when you say things like that, it puts me in an awkward position. I like working here, and I don't want to take sides."

At the very least, confronting your coworker in a reasonable way gives them the opportunity to understand and respond. At best, they may even respect you for it.

Whatever you do, make sure you're taking care of yourself and not letting the office turmoil get to you. Focus on your work, your health and your life outside the zoo — and remember to laugh at all the rare, wild species that you encounter there.

Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.

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There are three types of toxic coworkers—here's how to deal with them
There are three types of toxic coworkers—here's how to deal with them