4 signs you’re working with a toxic person—and what to do

Must read

It was easy to forget, while working from home for the past three years, that the office can be full of people looking out for only themselves. 

But as employers dial up the frequency of in-person working, it will be harder to ignore peers and bosses who make your life a living hell.

Unable to shield your energy through a screen and work in your own happy bubble, identifying who is your ally and who is out to get you (or your job) will become an increasingly important skill to have up your sleeve as you navigate the new working world.

It might be that you already have a bad gut feeling about a colleague but can’t quite put your finger on why. Amrit Sandhar, founder of The Engagement Coach says that this can cause internal stress and should be a red flag.

Or perhaps, as Ros Taylor, a clinical psychologist, corporate and leadership coach, and professor at Strathclyde University says, you’ve spotted the first tell-tale sign that you’re working with someone toxic: negative rumors spreading and they all point to one person.

Either way, both rely on listening to both your gut and others, which can be tricky to do. So they have distilled for Fortune the four clear signs someone is toxic—and how to deal with it. 

1. They’re manipulative

Unfortunately, some workers are driven by their own gain, rather than the greater good—and that “ambition at any cost can be toxic for everybody else around them,” says Sandhar.

These toxic professionals will not only tread on others to get to where they want to be, but they’ll bend how they act to conform to the views of those in power for political gain.

Blatant examples of this are taking people’s ideas or siding with the boss even when they don’t actually agree with what’s being said.

2. They lack confidence

“A lack of confidence underlies so much of workplace behaviors that get enacted,” Taylor says. “They are so lacking in confidence that they need to boost themselves—and that means damning somebody else.”

This can often present itself in the form of jealousy, fake helpfulness or underhanded advice, to make themselves look better at your expense. 

For example, a leader that lacks self-belief may not want somebody else better than them coming onto their team. So they trash them behind their back, downplay their success or provide feedback that makes them fail.

3. They abuse their power

The more someone’s promoted, the more they’re likely to think their views and way of working are the right way of working. “So then they believe their version of the truth is the only version of truth, and that can end up overriding anything else from anybody else,” Sandhar adds. 

Instead of encouraging inclusivity, this often looks like peers with slightly more authority than others, or all too often, managers, imposing their powers on others and ordering people on what to do.

They may not say “do you know who I am?” to their subjects, but their behavior certainly implies it.

4. They’re childish

Toxic behavior is learned in childhood—and when left unchecked, childish behavior can also creep into adulthood, cautions Taylor.

These types of people gossip behind the scenes, play the victim to get people’s sympathy, and point the finger when they need someone else to blame for their mistakes.

“If we take it back even further, we learn behaviors in the first three years of our life,” says Taylor. So it’s unlikely that a seasoned professional who has become successful after years of displaying such behaviors will change any time soon—but there are some things you can do to cope with toxic people at work. 

How to cope with a toxic person at work

Ultimately there are three things you can do if you’re stuck working with (or for) a toxic person: You can learn to emotionally cope with it, try to solve the problem, or leave.

It’s often hard to avoid toxic people in the workplace, especially when they’ve risen to positions of power. Plus, in the current economic climate, where employers are announcing cutbacks and mass layoffs, it might feel too risky to ruffle any feathers. 

So the easiest option is to “suck it up” and be happy that you have a job, says Taylor.

But the problem with letting bad behavior slide is that it will carry on and become ingrained in the company culture, on top of wearing down your own mental wellbeing.

In an ideal world, in the aftermath of being made to feel uncomfortable, undermined or backstabbed, you would politely confront the person to blame.

But in reality, Taylor warns that being direct with toxic people and calling this behavior out could backfire: It could limit future career progression and without significant insight on said person’s behavior, you won’t be able to actually help them change. 

Instead, she suggests positive reinforcement. “Find a way of rewarding the good in them,” she says. Stroking their ego won’t change how they treat others (and it will probably go against your natural reaction to be equally mean back) but “it might change their relationship with you because you make them feel more comfortable and respected in your presence.”

If that doesn’t work, you could turn to more seasoned staffers for support, be it a mentor, a line manager, or simply a workplace friend who’s more senior.

“There are people out there who want to help and want to make a difference,” Sandhar says. “So it’s identifying who those are, approaching them and saying, ‘here’s what I’m experiencing, how do I deal with it?’ and allowing them to escalate it.” 

When it comes to this approach, it’s scary but vital to name-drop to ensure the offender gets the guidance they need to improve and stops treating others in the organization badly.  

But in the end, if you’ve escalated these issues and nothing changes, then it signals that your employer is willing to tolerate toxic behavior. In which case, Sandhar implores you to ask yourself: Is that what I’m willing to tolerate?

If your answer is no, then it’s time to leave.

More articles

Latest article