How to handle five types of toxic co-workers

Dealing with toxic people every day is exhausting. Take these steps to halt them in their tracks.

How to handle five types of toxic co-workers

Don't let toxic co-workers take you down with them.

Like toxic waste, toxic co-workers have to be handled with care. And it’s not healthy to have prolonged exposure to either.

“Whether it’s chronic backstabbing, extreme defensiveness, narcissism, cruelty, bias, discrimination or other forms of mistreatment or misbehavior that they demonstrate, [toxic co-workers] are intolerable to work with or be around for an extended period,” says Kathy Caprino, founder of Connecticut-based career-coaching firm Ellia Communications. “They’re toxic because they’re like a poison to your system and to the organization’s ecosystem, making it hard to maintain your own well-being, professionalism, and collaborative spirit when you’re around them.”

Worse yet, working with a toxic co-worker can negatively impact your job performance and even derail your career if they’re allowed to continue their behavior.

So what’s the best strategy for handling a toxic co-worker? That depends on the type of person you’re dealing with.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This peer has a good side and a dark side—and their mood can shift suddenly, says Paul White, co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment. In a nutshell, this co-worker has an alter ego that makes the person behave nastily toward their peers—putting other people down and firing off insults left and right.

How to cope: The best way to handle this individual is to avoid the person where possible. For example, don’t engage at team happy hours, lunches, or other office social events. And, when you must interact with this person, keep your interactions brief so you don’t risk poking the bear.

The finger pointer

These toxic co-workers place blame on other people and don’t take responsibility for their actions. This behavior can happen even during seemingly innocuous situations. (“You broke the printer, not me.”)

How to cope: In many cases, finger pointers aren’t aware of their bad habits. Thus, your first attempt should be to address with the person one on one. Explain the facts of the situation in a clear and non-threatening way. Then ask them if your version of the story matches up with theirs. From there, you can talk through the discrepancies and then develop a solution together.

Mitchell Kusy, a professor at Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership & Change and author of Why I Don't Work Here Anymore, recommends closing the conversation with a clear objective: “Based upon our discussion today, here’s what we’re going to do going forward to avoid this issue in the future.”

The gossip

Gossip can wreck your reputation if you don’t address the issue, yet every office has a gossip queen or king. Such toxic co-workers thrive on speculating about romances between co-workers, spreading rumors, and talking negatively about other people when they’re not around.

How to cope: If you find out someone is talking negatively about you to other people, confront the instigator directly. The key, though, is to approach the person in private and politely, while firmly expressing your displeasure. One tactic: Start the conversation lightly. For instance, “I heard the strangest thing…”

Your goal is to get clarity without adding fuel to the rumor mill, says Caprino. So if the conversation steers into uncomfortable territory, make your stance clear: “I’m sorry, it sounds like you’re dealing with a tough situation, but I’m just not comfortable talking about a co-worker.”

The passive-aggressive

These toxic co-workers might agree to help you with a project but then come up short or miss a deadline and feign ignorance. That kind of behavior can make you look bad in front of your boss, which could hurt your ability to get plum assignments or promotions.

How to cope: This is another instance where you should broach the subject with the person directly: “I got the impression you understood the job’s requirements when we spoke before the meeting but then the job was left unfinished. I’d like to know what wasn’t clear so I can avoid this in the future.”

The credit thief

You’ve done all the hard work and achieved great results—only to have your co-worker steal credit for your work and ideas. This person’s behavior can come back to bite you during performance reviews and stop you from getting that raise you deserve.

How to cope: Take ownership of your ideas by copying your boss on important emails, like project updates. This will ensure you receive recognition for your hard work—and stop credit thieves in their tracks.

When should you get your boss involved?

If you’ve tried to resolve the issue with your toxic co-worker directly but their behavior hasn’t changed, bring it to your boss. It’s not going to be easy or comfortable to have this conversation with your manager, but preparation can help.

“Plan what you’re going to say and bounce it off an outside party to make sure you’re communicating clearly exactly what the issue is,” Caprino advises, “and have in mind what you’re hoping would be a successful outcome of sharing this with your boss.”

Don’t stay in a toxic workplace

Sometimes, your best efforts to work with a toxic co-worker are futile. If their behavior is having a detrimental effect on your health or work performance, there is no reason to sit and take it. Could you use some help finding a better job? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox to cut down on time spent looking through ads. Your job shouldn’t make you miserable. Let Monster help you find a job where the people support you.