| Sep 28, 2022

Toxic People at Work and How to Flourish Despite Them

Prospering in the company of a poisonous coworker is not just possible but the best strategy to stay clear of their influence and contribute to a positive workplace culture.

Have you ever driven to work with a pit in your stomach? Or walked away from a conversation with a work friend only to realize that you feel uncomfortable and insecure as a result of the interaction? Perhaps your intuition is trying to communicate something. 

Here is a frustrating reality: All of us will likely experience toxicity at work at some point in our lives. But as ubiquitous as this workplace toxicity is, sometimes it acts like a tasteless poison — difficult to detect and all the more deadly for it. 

In fact, this survey about the Great Resignation found that the number one reason people leave companies isn’t a low salary or poor management; it’s toxic company culture. Toxicity at work is damaging to productivity and morale since a negative outlook is contagious. Not only that, but a toxic coworker can even have damaging effects on your mental and physical health.

All this is to say, a toxic coworker is certainly nothing to scoff at.

But, as with most difficult experiences, it only takes a few mindset changes to come out of these circumstances with more emotional tenacity and perhaps even gratitude for the chance to overcome this challenge.

As a famous WWII general would say: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

How to Spot a Toxic Person at Work

Your first step to feeling some control over this situation will be recognizing toxicity when you see it. This is, unfortunately, often not as simple as going down a mental checklist. But there are some little “tests” you can do to see if the source of that uneasy gut feeling really is one particular coworker.

Look at How Your Coworkers Respond to You

A comprehensive HR report found that a key element of a positive work environment is supporting colleagues in their moments of success and offering them kindness and compassion in times of need. A toxic person may be consumed by insecurity, competitiveness, or resentment, which are all emotions that can prevent them from empathizing with both your struggles and victories.

Share some good news with your coworkers and pay close attention to how they respond. Are they genuinely happy for you? Or do they ignore you, subtly put you down, or belittle your achievements? 

Next, see how they respond when you complain or gossip. Perhaps they light up, suddenly interested and active in the conversation now that it voices a negative perspective. 

The people you work with should celebrate your joy, and you should return the favor. Why? Because you’re on the same team. Positive company culture means always remembering that you and your coworkers are working toward the same goals, meaning their success is your success, and your success is their success. 

How to Deal With a Toxic Coworker

Here’s something to remember — according to various studies and surveys, your toxic coworker (junior or senior) isn’t just toxic for you and your well-being but also for the company as a whole. 

This 2021 study on trust in the workplace found that people who feel empathy, trust, respect, and gratitude at work report: 

  • 74% less stress
  • 76% more engagement
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 40% less burnout
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 13% fewer sick days

So unless the issue is a widespread toxic culture, the company is likely to be on “your side” if the toxicity ever gets so bad that you want to bring it up with your superiors. This is because businesses have many reasons to try to form and maintain a healthy and positive work environment for all employees.

However, you might never even need or want to raise the issue with HR or your manager. There are small yet effective steps that you can take to put yourself back in the driver’s seat and thrive despite your toxic coworker.

Document Everything

When it comes to documenting things in any business or professional relationship, “prepare for the worst and hope for the best” are words to live by.

And if that day comes when your manager wants to better understand your frustration with your coworker, you’ll want to have a handy folder with screenshots of every email, text, or note that made you uncomfortable. Perhaps no one will ever see this folder, and let’s hope that you never need to pull it out!

At the very least, documenting these occurrences will make you feel like you’re doing something. Maybe your coworker made a comment in an email that was enough to make you seethe, but you didn’t want to (or couldn’t) start an argument with them and cause a scene. Taking a screenshot of that email and saving it will make you feel like you had a chance to respond in a way, and it will also serve as useful evidence if you ever need it.

Keep it Light

It is completely human to want to lose your temper with someone who is treating you poorly. But the reality is that we often can’t get into shouting matches at work. And even if you did argue with this person, it might be a little uncomfortable when you have to see them again every Monday through Friday. 

It may be more realistic to distance yourself, if possible. Toxic people sometimes try to bond with you first and then later use personal information against you. According to psychologist Dr. Chivonna Childs, it’s best to simply not engage. You can say hello to your coworker, and you can discuss work topics, but don’t let it get beyond that because any personal detail you share could be used as ammunition. Keep things as light as if you were discussing the weather.

“Not engaging” doesn’t mean not arguing. It can mean not laughing at an offensive joke. It could mean asking them to elaborate on something they said. For example, if your toxic coworker wants to speak poorly of you or someone else in the office, try asking them, “What do you mean by that? Why do you bring that up?” If they keep pressing, you can politely say that you don’t feel comfortable with the line of conversation. With consistency, your toxic coworker will most likely look for a source of drama somewhere else. 


When it comes down to it, the difference between a toxic coworker and a positive one is quite simple. Someone is toxic when they are no longer on your side — if they don’t want to see you thrive. But because toxic people are not hoping for your success, the best revenge is to, well, succeed. Try not to succumb to their level because then you may end up in a battle of who can out-toxic the other in a no-fun duel of snide remarks where everybody loses. 

Think about what flourishing means for you, and really go for it! You’ll be so busy prospering that you’ll forget that toxic person ever even occupied any space in your mind.

Kendra Estey
Executive Author

VP of Operations, Writer, & Editor, Massive Alliance

Kendra is the VP of Operations at Massive Alliance as well as a seasoned writer and editor with experience across industries and around the world. view profile


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