Great coworkers can make a mediocre workplace survivable and likewise terrible coworkers can make a struggling workplace completely untenable. I’ve been lucky enough to have encountered some truly wonderful colleagues, who I tend to think of more as my bunker mates, pulling each other out of the trenches of war. But of course, there have been some awful coworkers that if I saw walking into Applebee’s, I would abandon my potato skins and run.
The pandemic and work from home dynamics have put an interesting spin on workplace relationships.
Examples of common toxic coworker types and my advice for handling them.
The Rat. You likely made fast friends with this coworker as soon as you met and like a snake charmer, charmed all of your work secrets right out of you. Is it just you, or does she seem to be using that information to elevate herself now or even downright make you look bad?? While we all want to believe that our coworkers have our backs, it’s just not always the case. They may literally just be a dirty rat, or may be so laser focused on their own success, they’re not even aware they’re doing it. Either way, with this person, the best offense is a good defense.
While I will always advocate for being a good work friend, don’t get too deep in your relationships at work. If you need to vent about your terrible day, that assignment you botched, or your boss that doesn’t share your vision of a high-profile project, go to a friend outside of your office. Same with your successes. Every “win” will only stoke their sense of unhealthy competition. Keep it polite, and keep it moving.
The Killer of Dreams. This person’s negativity sucks the life out of every meeting, every discussion, every idea. It’s usually a person with longevity at your company, who hung tight as the organization weathered its history of ups and downs, who has seen countless new faces come in with their “fresh” ideas that have already been attempted and failed multiple times over. They should have moved on a long time ago but didn’t and now you are stuck with them.
While your instincts are to steer clear of them (and your instincts are right), try to remember that this person is likely good at heart but soiled by ghosts of the past. I bet people stopped listening to them a long time ago.
The next time you are in a meeting and they shoot down an idea because it was tried and failed in 2003, instead of ignoring them as per usual, try asking for their input. “Nancy, what do you think we would need to do to get a better outcome, what should be different this time around?” Nancy will probably be so shocked that she won’t have a clue, but after a few times of this happening, she may feel like part of the team again, where is it clear that her input matters and she should be more engaged in solution finding. And if not, just go back to ignoring her and working around her to get things done.
The Patronizer AKA The Patriarchist. You will recognize this person immediately because of the mansplaining, bropropriating, body spreading, and other cheap means used to trick your boss into thinking he knows more or can do more than you. In many instances, it results in this person getting more opportunities for high profile projects and/or advancement.
This is your “I’m Speaking” moment. Stand your ground, but if you can’t, or fear backlash, my next suggestion is to phone a friend. Surely you’ve noticed someone else in the group rolling their eyes every time this person opens their big fat mouth. Enlist this person to be your buddy. The next time you are interrupted midsentence, your buddy can jump in. “Hold on Jack, Rebecca was just explaining the theory of relativity. I’d like to hear what else she has to say, before we move on.” You and your buddy can tag team this loser until he realizes it won’t work anymore or your boss wises up.
When you can, try to get meeting agendas in advance so you have time to be prepared. In the past, when I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my thoughts in the group, I’ve also emailed my boss after the meeting with a concise summary of my suggestions/input/plan and an offer to meet one-on-one to discuss further. Sometimes it’s just not worth trying to fight to get a word in.
The Bulldozer. This person is very focused on the task at hand, often forgetting that workplaces involve PEOPLE and sometimes that means slowing down, thinking about your words before saying them, getting people on board before proceeding, etc. The best example I can think of is this woman I used to work with who could be extremely off-putting in her communication style to the point of being downright rude and offensive. I don’t know if the opposite of the term passive-aggressive is aggressive-aggressive but if that’s a word, that is what she was. One day, after she and I had a (polite) discussion about our difference of opinions on how to move forward on a project, she concluded our conversation by loudly announcing that she would be moving forward her way and I if I didn’t get out of her way she would just bulldoze me. I swear, she actually said that! In front of a junior colleague to boot. I spent the first half of the day seething in anger, and the second half attempting to calm myself down. When I felt I could confront her without my voice shaking with emotion, I approached her at the end of the day and calmly but assertively explained to her that I found her tone and words to be completely inappropriate, reminded her that we are a TEAM, and that I expected that to be the last time something like that ever happened. She apologized and we moved on. I can’t say that our relationship was stellar after that, but she never attempted to bulldoze – or bully – me again. See what I did there?
No matter what prototype your toxic coworker arrives in, just remember that their behavior has nothing to do with you. Try not to take it personally, rise up, and handle it like a boss.
Jessica Milewski is a human resources/recruitment professional, masters level educated in management and SHRM/HRCI certified, currently being her own boss lady as a resume writer/career coach. As her six-year-old daughter likes to explain “Her job is helping other people find jobs”. For help with your own job search, you can find her at GreenLight Resumes and Career Consulting, www.greenlightcareers.com.