Tips for dealing with difficult colleagues

It’s possible to deal with contemptible or thoughtless behaviour in the workplace without engaging in it yourself.

If you’ve ever worked in an office, there’s a good chance you’ve been forced to work with individuals who made the people around them feel like dirt. Maybe they aren’t aware of how their behaviour affects others, maybe they don’t care, or maybe they take a perverse pleasure in stomping on those they perceive as weaker.

Regardless of the specific variety of challenging personality you have on your hands, they are almost certainly costing the company a lot in terms of money and morale.

“Even for those toxic individuals who are the most productive, they cost the organisation money because people are exiting in droves to avoid working with them,” said Mitchell Kusy, Ph.D., a US psychologist, professor at Antioch University, and author of Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore: A Leader’s Guide to Offset the Financial and Emotional Costs of Toxic Employees.

The specific costs can range from 4% to 6% of total organisational compensation, Kusy said, considering the recruiting and retraining costs caused by the droves of good employees who quit as a result of toxic people. Kusy’s research further discovered that 51% of good employees are likely to quit.

Aside from the financial costs, unpleasant co-workers can make people dread going to work, increasing absenteeism and decreasing productivity.

Here are some tips from experts on how to deal with toxic people at work:

Figure out who you’re dealing with. The best course of action will depend on what type of person you’re dealing with. If it’s an individual who seems to have good intentions but continually pursues his or her goals in an aggressive or passive-aggressive way, then you may want to consider gently communicating how their behaviour is coming across.

If you’re dealing with what Kusy refers to as a “clever chameleon”, someone who is skilled at flattering people with power while undermining people without perceived power, your best bet might be to get backup from colleagues who are in the same situation and present your case to the “toxic protector”, the person in charge who might be enabling or protecting the toxic person. Kusy also noted that there may be a “toxic buffer” who is aware of the antics of the toxic person but does something “proactive” to mitigate the effects — like removing leadership responsibilities from the toxic person by making them an “individual contributor”. Unfortunately, this rarely works as it does not address the toxic behaviours directly, and they often continue.

But if you’re dealing with a truly contemptible person who seems to be aware of their behaviour and either does not care or revels in it, your best option may be to either transfer to another part of the company or avoid the person as much as possible.

“If you have to work closely with this person, you need to understand why they’re behaving this way, as it’s usually not about you,” said Fiona Wainrit, certified coach and founder of Career Mojo in Australia.

“Once you’ve tried everything, including confronting them, and their toxic behaviour continues, and you don’t want to leave your job, then my advice is to avoid as much face-to-face contact as you can,” Wainrit said. “Don’t engage them in lengthy conversations — just go by the bare minimum niceties and try to communicate work matters over email if you can. If their behaviour is in serious breach of company values, or code of conduct, then escalate to a manager.”

Practise empathy. If the situation does seem to be salvageable, it can be helpful to practise empathy, as difficult as that may seem. We may be wary of practising empathy with a person who behaves badly for fear that our needs could get lost or we might come across as weak.

But according to Louisa Weinstein, founder of the Conflict Resolution Centre in London and author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution, empathising with the other person can give us a great advantage over the situation, providing us access to information about them and even enabling us to see more areas of commonality than we originally imagined and help unearth solutions.

“They stop being a tyrant and become a human being,” she said. “An atmosphere of empathy is much more likely to engender trust and a feeling that both parties are prepared to take responsibility for themselves. Honesty can make it easier for people to say what they really want, which, in turn, opens up the potential for honest negotiation and a more sophisticated, adult interaction.”

Consider your role in the conflict. Along with practising empathy, it can be helpful to consider anything you might be doing to inflame the dynamic between you and the colleague with deplorable behaviour.

While Weinstein emphasises that you should not make yourself completely vulnerable or put yourself at the mercy of other people who may take advantage of your admission of guilt, you should aim to take a big-picture perspective.

“When we admit to ourselves the mistakes we have made, we can let them go,” she said. “Often this helps the other person let them go too and serves as a lesson. This step is about asking ourselves and others for forgiveness so that we can move on and get on with the job of pursuing our goals.”

Set up a conversation. In some cases, it can be helpful for both parties to sit down and have an honest, respectful conversation.

The ideal setting and agenda will depend on the situation. For example, if you ask someone to have a coffee, Weinstein said, you are indicating you want a low-key discussion, while a more formal discussion might be held in a meeting room with a prepared agenda.

If scheduling the meeting over email, be sure to provide time options and frame the meeting as a positive step forward.

Weinstein suggested a subject line such as, “Meeting to discuss way forward”, and a message along the lines of, “I would really like to have a conversation about how we can work together moving forward”, and providing a few times you’re available.

Avoid absolutes. If you’re confronting an aggressive or contemptuous colleague about their behaviour, it is very likely that they will become defensive, so you’ll want to avoid using words like “always”, “never”, and “everyone”, Kusy noted.

“When you give these individuals feedback and you say, ‘You always do this’, they’ll respond, with ‘No, I don’t. I remember a time 15 years ago when I didn’t do that’, and they’ll be correct,” Kusy said.

They need to be called on their bad behaviour in a way they can accept and take responsibility for, according to Weinstein.

She suggests framing feedback from your perspective, such as, “When you do that, my experience is x, y, z” or “When you do that, it creates x, y, z”.

Avoid hiring such people in the first place. If you happen to be in a position of power or have the opportunity to make hiring suggestions, you may want to consider implementing toxic applicant filters.

One useful tip Kusy suggested is approaching individuals who are not part of the interviewing team, such as maintenance people, receptionists, drivers, or cafeteria people, ahead of an interview and saying to them, “You may or may not have an opportunity to interview this individual, but if you do, I’d like you to gauge whether they seem like someone who would live out our values.”

Kusy reasons that a difficult person is unlikely to give any regard to someone they perceive as having little power.

Institute systems for discipline. Giving feedback is pointless if there are no consequences. Again, this tip applies only if you have some level of power within the company, but in order to effectively deal with toxic people, there must be consequences to violating company values.

The consequences could be dismissal, a dock in pay, probation, or documentation about the issue in their human resources file, but if there are no consequences, it signals to the entire office that the company values aren’t to be taken seriously. Kusy also recommended incorporating company values into the performance appraisal process and assessing these values with the same rigour that you evaluate task performance.

“Many organisations have their values on conference room walls, business cards, and organisational position statements,” Kusy said. “However, the values may not be integrated into what’s really important — into the fabric of what people do every day at work.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at