We’ve all dealt with toxic coworkers—the person with the short fuse, the one who always rolls their eyes when offered a suggestion, the office gossip... Not only are toxic coworkers bad for morale, but according to experts, they can also make other employees less productive.
Whether a toxic coworker is in fact a “bad” coworker—as in, not doing their job or creating an intentionally difficult work environment—or just has a challenging personality (or both), the bottom line is that being around someone like that, day after day, can be draining. Experts often refer to these individuals as emotional vampires because they “drain us of our energy and leave us feeling emotionally exhausted” and they often feed off our emotional reactions.
However, just because someone might be a bad coworker doesn’t mean they’re a bad worker. Toxic coworkers can often be—or seem to be—contributing significantly to an organization's bottom line, meaning that their behaviours are potentially overlooked or unnoticed by management or HR, even when complaints are logged. As noted, toxic coworkers can damage morale and productivity.
There’s a surefire way to deal with toxic coworkers. Don’t hire them.
HR can prevent toxicity in the office by screening out toxic personalities during the interview process. Experts have said that “the best way to identify people who aren't team players is to have prospective employees meet with staff—preferably over lunch or drinks, when someone's personality might emerge more clearly—and watch how the applicant interacts with others”.
It’s also important to write job descriptions that clearly demonstrate your collaborative company culture, incorporate culture fit questions into the interview process, and make expectations of teamwork and co-creation explicit throughout the recruitment process.
Employees should be given the strategies and skills they need to address minor concerns on their own.
Here are some strategies your employees can attempt with a toxic coworker before reaching out to management or HR:
Show no signs of encouragement
Not encouraging an emotional vampire means several things. First, PayScale advises employees to not ask any follow-up questions, and to use body language (facing away, avoiding eye contact) to indicate a lack of interest in continuing the conversation.
Setting a clear boundary with a vampire is a good strategy, too. Saying something like: “Sorry, I only have a couple minutes. I really need to get _____ done,” can effectively end any conversation.
Many people struggle with being direct, and toxic individuals take advantage of politeness. Encourage employees to practice a kind but firm tone to help them disengage from a conversation (or confrontation) with a toxic coworker.
What management can do
If all else fails and an employee is forced to make a formal complaint to their manager or HR, there are several tactics that management can take regarding how to deal with toxic coworkers.
The first is ensuring that the employee feels heard. Listen to their concerns and validate them. The second is to keep a record of complaints; it’s important that any issues are recorded in the event that they are unresolvable and the toxic employee needs to be terminated. Next is addressing the concerns with the toxic employee directly and creating a plan to address and change the behaviour.
Ultimately, dealing with different and sometimes challenging personalities is a part of working as a team. Knowing how to deal with toxic coworkers successfully is a valuable skill for both employees and employers.