What Are the Signs of a Toxic Coworker?

Brad Nakase, Attorney

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Does this story sounds like your work environment?

Eloise has recently started a new job at an office in Los Angeles. Within a few days, however, she realizes that one of her new teammates, Wayne, shows the signs of a toxic coworker. First of all, Wayne never has anything positive to say. In fact, he is almost always sarcastic, and Eloise is pretty sure that he has mastered the art of the disguised insult. Whenever Eloise asks for his help with something, Wayne says, “Seriously, you don’t know that? I wonder how you got this job. Well, I’m not going to tell you, so you’ll just have to figure it out.” Eloise has also heard Wayne gossiping about other employees, and she doesn’t doubt that he gossips about her behind her back. Thanks to Wayne’s behavior, morale at the office is taking a nosedive. Eloise loves her work, and she doesn’t want to quit the job based on one person. Having identified the signs of a toxic coworker, she wonders how best to deal with the situation.

How to Identify a Toxic Coworker

It does not take much to turn a healthy, cooperative workplace into an unpleasant environment to work. In fact, sometimes it only takes one toxic coworker to ruin a positive workplace with their negative attitude and behavior. Not only do toxic coworkers make a work environment unpleasant to be in, but they also damage office morale and workplace productivity.

The 8 identifying traits of of a toxic coworker are:

    1. The toxic coworker is often sarcastic.
    2. The toxic coworker often insults and mock others.
    3. The toxic coworker is selfish.
    4. The toxic coworker is caustic, meaning they like to argue.
    5. The toxic coworker is disrespectful.
    6. The toxic coworker thinks they know more than everyone.
    7. According to Forbes, the toxic coworker likes to gossip.
    8. The toxic coworker is passive aggressive in their comments and behavior.

Often, they create drama or gossip, harm the company culture, and ruin the trust that exists between team members.

A Fierce Inc. study showed that a whopping 80% of employees have either worked with or currently work with someone they describe as potentially toxic. This is clearly an issue that affects a significant portion of the American workforce and is something that most workers will encounter at some point in their careers. In fact, a Randstad study found that nearly 60% of employees leave their workplace because of negativity, office politics and drama, and disrespectful behavior.

One solution, some may suggest, is to simply ignore a coworker’s toxicity and not allow it to affect one’s work or the workplace at large. However, this is easier said than done, especially when one works closely with the toxic coworker. To be in this position is often frustrating and exhausting. Not only that, but it can sometimes be difficult to identify a toxic coworker. This is especially the case if they are in one’s friend group or have previously been a friend.

If an employee is feeling exhausted or in a bad place after interacting with a coworker, then this could be a sign that the coworker may be toxic. Toxic behavior can be expressed through words, body language, the violation of boundaries, not sharing information, undermining other employees, not keeping promises, insulting and gossiping about others, and more.

The first step to dealing with a toxic coworker is to learn how to identify one. Once an employee understands that their coworker qualifies as toxic, he or she will be prepared to set healthy boundaries.

Does a Toxic Coworker Have Victim Syndrome?

It is common for toxic coworkers to display victim syndrome and never take responsibility for their actions. Employees who have a victim syndrome will talk about how they hate their job, their team, the company, or their boss. This kind of person enjoys creating a miserable environment and sharing that misery with others. This is not the same as having a bad day now and again. It is a persistent negative attitude that is shared with others against their will. From a psychological standpoint, the toxic employee is sharing their discontent with others to make themselves feel better.

Toxic coworkers are also known to make excuses for their poor performance. Instead of taking responsibility, they reject constructive criticism under the assumption that it is an attack against them. After receiving this kind of feedback, they tend to hold grudges. Even after conflicts have been resolved, they always bring up how they have been wronged.

When joining a company, it can be difficult for a new employee to know whom to avoid in an office. It can be easy for a new employee who is eager to make friends to unknowingly join the social circle of a toxic coworker. This is because he or she may not be aware of how the toxic person operates, whereas others in the office have become familiar with their patterns. It is important, therefore, for a new employee to see if the behavior is unique to the coworker or is a general characteristic of the workplace.

Having an encounter with a toxic person can be difficult and disheartening. Luckily, there are some strategies for coping and staying tough mentally:

  • An employee should surround themselves with positive coworkers who do not behave like victims and take responsibility
  • An employee should consider talking to the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to learn how to handle the situation and have a place to talk freely
  • An employee should consider talking to Human Resources, keeping the discussion based on factual incidents rather than the toxic coworker’s personality
  • An employee should engage in social activities after hours
  • An employee should practice meditation

Example: Gracie has just joined a new office and is excited to meet her new coworkers. She introduces herself to the person sitting in the next cubicle, who says his name is Jeff. Jeff immediately tells Gracie that she will have to work hard at this office, because it sounds like she doesn’t have much experience. He goes on to say that he does the best work on the team and is never rewarded for it. Therefore, he says, he can’t imagine Gracie doing better. Gracie is shocked at his behavior. At lunch, she talks to another employee about the situation. The other employee merely rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, that’s just Jeff. Hang out with me and the others and ignore his negativity.” Gracie decides that she will do just that and try to avoid Jeff’s toxicity.

Does a Toxic Coworker Gossip?

Gossip is a common problem for companies and is the root of many internal issues. Gossip creates negativity in a workplace, and because it spreads quickly, toxicity can arise overnight. In general, toxic colleagues exhaust all those around them and decrease group motivation. However, sometimes it can be hard to identify a toxic employee even if one is working directly next to them. However, one easy way to identify a toxic coworker is to see if they talk about other employees behind their backs.

It is important to realize that if a coworker is gossiping to you, then they are most likely gossiping about you to others. In this way, gossip can break down teamwork and destroy a previously strong team.

The same ego that drives a toxic person to gossip also makes them hoard information or act in a clique-like manner. They may exclude a coworker from meetings and team activities. Similarly, they may withhold information that is essential to doing a job well, thereby making work difficult for others. This kind of toxic behavior damages others’ mental health and can negatively impact an entire workplace.

In this way, toxic people put themselves first, even when it hurts others. In fact, often toxic people use others’ misfortunes as a way to get ahead at work. This lack of empathy means that when a coworker is having a hard time with a project, the toxic employee may use the opportunity to put down that coworker. They do this to show how they excel in a particular area.

If an employee is having these kinds of interactions with a toxic coworker, it is wise to begin documenting incidents. An employee should also be prepared to find ways of getting necessary information without interacting with the toxic employee. In fact, it is best to learn how to limit interactions altogether. However, one should know that setting these boundaries, though healthy, can make the toxic coworker lash out. Even so, setting these boundaries is an important step toward being happy and productive at the workplace. Any negative reaction from the toxic employee is simply evidence of their frustration. Clearly, they are not used to having boundaries put up and are offended. Take this as a positive sign: their anger means that your strategy is working.

The following are boundaries that can be put in place to handle a gossiping toxic coworker:

  • Empathize and advise them to focus on the positive or to speak with a manager about the issue
  • Do not engage in the gossip by extracting yourself from the conversation
  • Focus on positive gossip that promotes the achievements of others
  • Tell them that you do not like to talk about office politics
  • Surround yourself with positive people who do not like to spread gossip
  • Use phrases such as “this sounds like a rumor” or “is this true, or gossip?”

Example: Kathy has recently started working at a new office. One of her team members, Ben, is fond of gossiping about other coworkers. For instance, Ben will say, “I heard Lydia got put on a Performance Improvement Plan. No wonder. She can’t do anything right.” Kathy suspects Ben gossips like this because it makes him feel better about his own performance. However, Kathy feels uncomfortable talking about Lydia behind her back. She also wonders if Ben talks about herself to others. Perhaps he also criticizes her performance in front of them. Kathy realizes, however, that she has to find a way of working with Ben because he is her teammate. She begins to set boundaries with him by indicating she does not like to gossip. When next he brings up the subject of Lydia, Kathy responds with “That sounds like a rumor. Anyway, Lydia always has the best PowerPoints. Let’s talk about something else. I hate office politics.” By confronting Ben’s behavior, Kathy is able to stop him from gossiping in front of her.

Does a Toxic Employee Use Passive Aggressive Comments?

It is common for toxic employees to undermine others as a way of getting ahead in the workplace. Toxic coworkers love to find fault in others and exploit it for their own personal gain. In fact, they might get a rush out of holding other people back for their own benefit. Passive aggression is one of the signs of a toxic coworker who behaves this way.

The following are some examples of passive-aggressive comments and behavior:

  • The silent treatment
  • Sarcasm and disguised insults
  • Blaming others
  • Rejecting feedback or criticism
  • Cynicism
  • Air of superiority

Often, toxic coworkers complain a lot, in the same sense that they see themselves as victims. Even when things are going well at the office, they still find something negative. This is because they are looking for attention, or an audience who will listen to them. This kind of behavior affects workplace morale and productivity in the long run. The negative attitude is contagious, affecting team members’ motivation and outlook. In turn, low morale decreases productivity, especially if conflicts arise due to the toxicity.

It is possible to bring positivity back into the workplace by having joyful interactions with other coworkers. One can also listen to motivating, positive podcasts. Tactics such as these are important because it is easy to lose motivation when a toxic coworker makes one doubt their own abilities. In general, focusing on the good work one does can be uplifting and motivating, taking attention away from the toxic individual’s antics.

The following describes a strategy an employee can use to stay motivated and positive:

  • Maintain a document listing achievements and victories
  • Paste into this document emails and reviews that show positive feedback and commendation
  • Look at the document when in need of motivation or positivity

Example: For some time now, Theo has been dealing with a toxic coworker at his office. Janice is always negative, insulting people behind their backs and constantly being sarcastic. When she is mad at someone, she gives them the cold shoulder, creating awkwardness in the workplace. As her team member, Theo often gives her constructive criticism. Janice, however, responds by blaming others, including Theo. As a result, Theo has started to feel bad about his own performance. His motivation and morale plummets. In order to feel better about his work, Theo keeps a document on his computer that lists all his accomplishments. That raise? He writes it down. That email from a customer thanking him for all his help? He writes it down. Whenever Janice blames Theo for her mistakes or says something nasty, Theo looks at the document to remind himself what a great employee he is.

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