Sometimes working in an office can feel more like swimming with sharks.
While we’re all familiar with workplace conflict, particularly toxic coworkers can leave their fellow employees drowning in stress, be it through bullying, gossip, or cutthroat behavior.
Career experts say these kinds of coworkers can put you in sticky situations, but it’s important to deal with them smartly — and professionally — if you want to stay afloat.
“Being able to handle these challenging, competitive individuals is a crucial skill for career success,” says Cal Jungwirth, an Edmonton-based director at Robert Half.
So how do you do that? Well, it depends on what type of office shark you’re dealing with.
Imagine if, every time you run into Joe, he makes a snarky comment about your suit, or picks on you for your lackluster sales numbers, or teases you for flubbing up in the infield at your company’s softball tournament.
Sound familiar? This type of colleague feels more like a mean kid in the schoolyard than a professional, employed adult — but grown-up bullies do exist in the workplace, and they can be a pain to deal with.
How to handle a bully
Jungwirth says it’s important to make a mental note about these types of individuals and understand that if they bully you once, they’ll likely do it again. “Do not stoop to their level, and don’t take the bait,” he adds.
“If it’s one individual that’s the bully — and it’s not just you, but many people that feel that way — it’s probably something that should be escalated,” adds Katie Bennett, president at Edmonton-based Double Black Diamond Coaching.
Picture this: Your team member, Sue, doesn’t agree with your manager’s direction for an upcoming project and voices her opinion loudly-and-proudly at the water cooler.
It’s her usual tactic. And, like several times before, instead of just buckling down to do her part, Sue shirks her responsibilities, adding more to your plate and potentially getting you and your other team members in trouble with your boss.
She’s a classic slacker, and while it might seem less dangerous than a bully, a chronic this-is-your-problem-not-mine attitude can lead to even more problems for you.
How to handle a slacker
Bennett says it’s important to create a culture of peer-to-peer accountability from the beginning, to ensure you don’t need to call someone out to a manager.
In the case of someone like Sue, if you’re worried about her missing a Thursday deadline, nip her behavior in the bud early, rather than escalate things up the chain — or worse, wait until the project goes south.
“It’s better that you go to Sue on Tuesday and ask, how’s it going for Thursday? Are we going to be ready? Is there anything I can do to help you get there?” Bennett suggests.
If there is a lack of trust between you and a coworker, she also recommends bringing it up gently but directly. “You can start addressing that by asking that person out for coffee and getting to know them better to build that trust,” she says.
Some people might feel pressured to stand out from their coworkers to move ahead, and making others look bad might be one tactic they use to promote themselves, says Jungwirth.
That could be like your colleague Abdul publicly criticizing your work in a meeting — yikes — or even worse, taking all the credit for a project where you did the bulk of the work.
This type of cutthroat behavior can also manifest in “toxic gossip,” says Jungwirth.
How to handle a self-promoter
While you don’t need to completely change your approach to this person, you need to be graceful, according to Jungwirth.
That means staying professional regardless of their conduct, and remembering that there’s safety in numbers — so it’s important to also maintain healthy relationships with the rest of your peers and keeping people on your side.
You might also want to sit down with a manager to explain the situation if it’s an ongoing pattern, or loop in Human Resources if you want to avoid looking like a taddle-tale or getting stuck in a he-said, she-said situation.
The bottom line
Whatever situation you’re in, you need to gauge if there’s someone who keeps being a bully, slacker, or self-promoter — or if the broader office culture is toxic.
Bennett suggests asking yourself a few key questions: If I’m constantly in conflict with people, do I fit here? Do I share the same values as this company? Do I want to work here?
If the answers are “no,” it might be time to look for another job where you won’t be spending every day in shark-infested waters.
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