Toxic Colleague? Here’s How To Protect Your Career & Mental Health

September 26, 2018

Annoying coworker

Our jobs would be an absolute dream come true if we could always work with the people we love. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic — sometimes you get stuck working with one or two colleagues you actively dislike. Dealing with these irritating (or downright toxic) co-workers can be a real pain, and most articles on the subject are less than helpful. They tell you to not take things personally, not to let them get into your head. They even advise against venting to your friends.

This advice not only fails to be constructive, it goes against basic human nature. Yes, it would be wonderful if we could simply flip a switch and not be upset by other people’s bad behavior, but that’s just not the way the human brain works. If you’re looking for real suggestions — actions you can actually take — on how to survive this highly uncomfortable situation, consider the following.

Try to Work It Out

The ability to work as part of a team is one of the most important soft skills employers look for — and working on a team means being at least halfway decent at conflict resolution. If the tension between you and a colleague is starting to get in the way of work, your best bet is to try to resolve the issue.

Ask your coworker to meet you somewhere relatively neutral, like a conference room or coffee shop. Bring up recent discomfort you’ve been experiencing and let them know you want to work together to alleviate any ongoing issues. Be sure to keep the exchange as non-accusatory as possible, using “I feel” statements instead of pointing fingers. If things go well, your working relationship is sure to improve!

However, if the conflict continues, you may need to bring it up again. You can be more stern this time and let them know that if things can’t be resolved, you will have to go up the chain. It’s after this that you can go to your supervisor with a clear conscience. That said, there are times where going straight to a manager or HR should be your first response, such as in instances of sexual harassment or threats to your safety.

Ask to Be Moved

Sometimes moving desks is the simplest way to avoid conflict with your co-workers (I’ve done it more than once myself). If you work in an environment where you’re free to go where you please, pack up your stuff and go. If not, ask your supervisor if you can move desks. You don’t have to give them a play-by-play of why your colleague is driving you insane; instead, just say that there’s some conflict between you and another employee and that it is hampering your productivity. If your company offers the ability to work remotely, take advantage of it. It’s much more difficult for a coworker to annoy you when you’re not physically in their presence.  

Remain Civil

You don’t have to be super chatty or friendly with colleagues you don’t like, but you do need to be polite. Defaulting to the most courteous version of yourself keeps things professional, even when a toxic coworker is trying their hardest to make things challenging. Pleasantries such as greeting them in the morning and saying farewell in the evening are easy enough to manage — and keep you securely on the high road where you belong.

If you simply can’t stand talking to them, move any and all discussions to email. Not only will this keep the lines of communication open, it will also make sure every interaction is documented (should things get ugly).

Tell Management There’s a Problem

If you do have to approach your manager in regards to the conflict, make sure you only discuss it in terms of how it’s affecting your performance or the company as a whole. It’s important you have a few specific examples of times your coworker’s behavior has affected your job. It also doesn’t hurt to explain how negativity impacts morale and how toxic employees cost businesses more than their non-toxic counterparts due to lost productivity and increased employee turnover.

Finally, let your boss know what your ideal outcome would be in this situation, and plan your next steps. If you have a pretty good relationship with your boss, it might be worthwhile to suggest conflict management training for all employees — it’s a skill many of us don’t come by naturally.

Find a New Job

I know you don’t want to hear this, but there’s a good chance your company will continue to put up with toxic employees because they’re good at certain parts of their job, or they feel it’s too expensive to replace them. This means that if you’ve done everything you can to solve the problem, and it’s still interfering with your ability to do your job — or worse, having a negative impact on your mental health — it may be time to leave for greener pastures.


It’s truly unfortunate, but having to put up with awful co-workers is pretty much an inevitability. And dealing with them means either addressing the conflict one-on-one, doing your best to just ignore it, or quitting your job entirely. As you take some time to figure out which solution will work best for you, surround yourself with the people who make you feel confident and happy. By spending as much time as possible with fun, caring, and empathetic co-workers, you can counterbalance the toxicity of others.

Toxic Colleague? Here’s How To Protect Your Career & Mental Health

Have you ever dealt with a toxic colleague? 

Also by Liz: Sitting All Day Is *The Worst* For Your Health. How To Stay Well Even With A Desk Job

Related: How to Deal With a Toxic Work Environment

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Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies


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