Rae Curcio-Molnar has stories. And too many of them have to do with toxic work experiences—like the ambulance company job she had, where overwork and negative, “suck-it-up” attitudes made her thankful when she got injured and had to quit.
Or when she became a technician at an eye doctor’s office. “When I went into it, it seemed fine. Everyone was nice,” Curcio-Molnar says. “But as time went on there was a lot of gaslighting. The expectations of what you were supposed to do were never made 100% clear and then when you didn’t meet them, you would get yelled at.”
It wasn’t just the higher-ups who displayed toxic behavior. Curcio-Molnar encountered coworkers who were sweet and would praise her but then flipped a switch. Their sweet side “makes you want to impress them but then like an hour later, you’ll be berated” and feel awful for disappointing them, Curcio-Molnar says.
While she knew their opinions had no bearing on whether she would keep or lose her job—they weren’t her bosses, after all—Curcio-Molnar still cared what they thought. “Because they put you into the mentality of, ‘Let’s be nice and pretend we’re all this one big family.’ And then 10 minutes later, you’re making me want to cry,” she says.
These experiences, and others at different workplaces, have made Curcio-Molnar more savvy when it comes to spotting toxic coworkers. “I’m definitely not going to put up with it anymore,” she says. “I’m going to build my own boundaries. There’s only so much I will allow and after that it’s not acceptable.”
Like Curcio-Molnar, you can learn to recognize toxic coworkers and behaviors. While it’s not your job to “fix” toxicity in the workplace, there are steps you can take to defuse the situation and maintain your inner peace.
What are toxic coworkers, and why does it suck so much to have them?
Toxic coworkers make it hard for you to do your job and are harmful to be around.
Characteristics of toxic coworkers can run the gamut. Often, these kinds of colleagues aren’t willing to collaborate, don’t listen, and speak over others, says Susie Silver, senior consultant at The Diversity Movement, which helps businesses integrate DEI in their operations through coaching, assessments, planning, and education.
Toxic coworkers are often unsatisfied with their own personal performance, position, pay, or experience in the workforce and they’ve allowed that dissatisfaction to come to such a boiling point that they become detractors within the culture, says Robert H. Johnson Jr., a DEI and leadership consultant and head of International Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Enablement at DoorDash.
For Dr. Nika White, a DEI consultant, microaggressions come up when she thinks about toxic coworkers and the harmful effect they can have on employees. “Microaggressions can be defined in many ways,” White says. “But, for the most part, it’s just those subtle acts of oppression and exclusion that cause people to feel othered, cause people to feel oppressed, and cause people to not feel a sense of belonging.”
Feeling oppressed or excluded can affect workers’ psychological safety—a key ingredient for a healthy workplace—and in turn impacts people’s ability to show up authentically and do their best at work. When you can’t be yourself, you may question and doubt—if you matter, if you can succeed—and begin to withdraw.
The impacts of toxic coworkers can be far reaching. The workplace will suffer from less productivity, engagement, risk-taking, and creativity, Silver says. And when workers are stifled in this way, they may start to feel isolated, which can influence their mental health and careers—both in the short and long term.
While some coworkers are occasionally annoying, others are truly toxic. Here are five common types of toxic coworkers and how you can deal with each one—whether you can successfully influence their damaging behavior or just try to protect yourself from it.
1. The constant complainer
This coworker is pretty easy to identify because, as the name suggests, they’re always complaining.
“The coffee’s never hot enough, they don’t have the flavor that I like, the meeting’s not at the time I need it to be, my manager sucks, everything is wrong,” Johnson Jr. says, adding that this type of coworker can be the most frustrating because their negative attitude might be infectious and impact how you feel about the workplace.
Someone who complains constantly may not feel heard in the workplace, which is a serious problem. But while it’s understandable to occasionally vent your frustrations or seek support from a peer, frequent negativity can overwhelm both parties. And it won’t necessarily improve the situation if they’re not taking steps to bring their concerns to their boss or, if it exists, their union.
How to deal with a constant complainer
The reality is, your colleague is probably going to turn to you first to complain because you’re a fellow employee they probably feel comfortable with.
Johnson Jr. says the best approach to meet a complainer where they are is to deploy sympathy and curiosity, by saying something like: “First and foremost, Robert, I hear what you’re saying but honestly I haven’t had that experience. Tell me more about that.”
But if the occasional complaint turns into constant venting, you can try something a little more direct to encourage them to rethink their doom and gloom attitude.
Career coach and former Muser Kyle Lee suggests saying something like this: “I’ve had enough jobs to know that there’s always going to be something that stinks. What I’ve found here is that focusing on the positive and making sure I know why I’m doing what I’m doing is way better than fixating on the stuff we can’t fix. It’s been working for me, so it could work for you too.”
Ultimately, Johnson Jr. says, you want a self-awareness switch to turn on with a constant complainer. That way, they can realize they’re always complaining and become curious as to why. “Then it becomes an introspective search versus an outward negative sentiment,” Johnson Jr. says. They have the agency to decide: “I can stay and resolve or I can leave and find somewhere that really aligns with who I am.”
But if the above doesn’t work—or you just don’t want to engage—you can also deflect, change the subject, or even distance yourself from the complainer. After all, it shouldn’t fall on you to single handedly change your colleague’s negative disposition.
You can use what career consultant Lea McLeod calls “getaway phrases,” such as “I have a phone call I need to jump on,” or, “I need to prep for the meeting this afternoon,” to extricate yourself from conversations before they turn into complaint-fests.
2. The gossiper
A lot of us gossip about our colleagues when we’re outside the office or during organization-sponsored happy hours. But a coworker who engages in occasional chitchat about their colleagues (which can be harmful already) becomes a potentially toxic gossiper when they talk about other people behind their backs on a regular basis.
This person might spread rumors or half-truths about their colleagues, and a conversation with them usually isn’t complete without hearing salacious details (true or not) about John in the marketing department or Haley the receptionist.
People who fall into the gossiper coworker type may be insecure about their ability to do their job well, think gossip helps them bond with their colleagues, or be trying to seek attention. At the end of the day, no matter why a coworker gossips incessantly, their trash talk can damage employees’ morale and damage the team’s psychological safety.
How to deal with a gossiper
You can prepare yourself with scripts before an encounter with a gossipy coworker. For example, you can say, “Huh. That doesn’t sound true”—adopting an approach that can help minimize or shut down your colleague’s gossip in the moment, Silver says, because it signals skepticism of their “facts” and communicates that you’re not willing to dish dirt too. Or you can try a subtle subject change like, “Ugh, I’d much rather talk about [weekend plans/an exciting new project/etc.]—how’s it going?”
Another tactic, Silver says, is to excuse yourself from a conversation that centers around gossip. You can lean on one of the same getaway phrases you’d use with a complainer, bowing out by saying you’re busy or just about to jump into a meeting. Or if you feel bold, you can say directly that you don’t like to participate in gossip.
If you deflect these kinds of chats enough, the coworker in question will (hopefully) take the hint and stop coming to you to fulfill their urge to gossip.
3. The credit stealer
You might recognize this situation: You share a promising strategy or an insightful comment in a meeting, but no one seems to hear you, let alone be impressed. Then someone else repeats the same idea a few minutes later and soaks in the praise without giving you credit for raising it first.
Unfortunately, women and people of color are often victims of credit stealers. “As a person of color, no one hears the recommendation that I make but then my peer, Jacob or whomever who is maybe white [and] male [or] Asian male majority, repeats the same idea and then it becomes their idea,” says Johnson Jr., who is a Black man. “It’s the minimization of my voice and elevation of those who are within the in-group.”
But it goes beyond spontaneous idea poaching. The credit stealer might also make your wins seem like their own when talking to your boss or senior leaders, either out in the open or behind closed doors. They might insinuate they spearheaded a project that was in fact a collaboration. Or they might ask you for your thoughts one-on-one and then present them as their own in another context.
As if that’s not enough, the credit stealer might trivialize your successes when they can’t take credit for them. If you’ve just given a great presentation and are on a high, they might say something like “It was OK. If I were you, I would have done X, Y, and Z instead.”
How to deal with a credit stealer
When a credit stealer repeats the same idea you shared 20 minutes ago, first take a deep breath.
Then you can calmly say something like, “I’m glad what I said earlier resonated with you. Let’s talk about it more,” or, “I’m glad you thought my idea was helpful! Are there any questions you have about it or anything else I can contribute?”
“You’re confronting them in a way that’s a soft pitch," Johnson Jr. says.
If their behavior extends beyond meetings, be mindful of what you’re sharing, with whom, and when, and make sure your contributions are visible to your manager and others by copying them in on certain updates, for instance.
4. The microaggressor
Microaggressions can have a huge impact on employees. They can be spoken or unspoken, and feed into stereotypes and stigmatizations of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other marginalized groups, White says.
A coworker may call a woman in the workplace “sweetie,” or say, “I have a lot of Black friends!” to a person of color to try and prove they’re not racist, Johnson Jr. says.
Because microaggressions are often subtle and unconscious, sometimes people don’t recognize them for what they are and excuse colleagues for this behavior.
“It’s not to say that we have to shame, guilt, and blame people,” White says, “but we do need to hold them accountable and educate them and be in environments where it’s safe to do so.”
How to deal with a microaggressor
It can be difficult to defuse a microaggressor but it is possible. “Quite often people will go to their leader before they’ve addressed the person because it’s uncomfortable, it’s awkward,” Johnson Jr. says. As he points out, you might be thinking: “Why am I even having to have this conversation with you? You’re an adult. I’m an adult.” But direct communication is where he suggests starting if you feel safe and comfortable trying it.
You could say: “You know what, Robert? I really don’t appreciate when you use this word or refer to me in this way. It’s actually quite minimizing and demeaning and it’s a microaggression. Are you familiar with what a microaggression is?”
Some people don’t know what a microaggression is because it’s not something we’ve been taught in school depending on when and where we’ve grown up, Johnson Jr. says. He adds that microaggressions tend to be unconscious and based on a lack of awareness or education on a specific topic.
But what happens when a microaggressor isn’t receptive to your direct communication? Then it’s time to bring the matter to your manager or higher-ups. Let them know you’ve already tried to talk to your coworker but that hasn’t worked.
5. The bystander
The bystander will see your ideas get nabbed, see colleagues direct microaggressions at you, see…any number of things happening right in front of their eyes. But until they experience it themselves, or even when they do, they’ll only feel for themselves, Johnson Jr. says.
Sometimes people aren’t as aware as you think they’d be. And often, people will go along to get along, to feel like they’re part of the in-group, and to safeguard their own jobs.
Johnson Jr. had a disheartening and hurtful experience with a bystander coworker himself. “I had a white female coworker and we were very close,” he says. “We would go to lunch together. I knew about her mother and family and she knew about my family.”
Johnson Jr. says he helped coach her through microaggressions that were being hurled at her because she’s a woman. But when he was the victim of microaggressions as a Black man, that same colleague dismissed what he told her and said she didn’t think that particular employee would behave that way.
How to deal with a bystander
With a bystander coworker, Johnson Jr. recommends that you first relate to their experiences and then try to help them see how they could react with more empathy. For example, you could say, “Remember when you told me John did this and it made you feel that particular way? What was my response to that? It wasn’t, ‘No, that’s impossible,’ it was, ‘First and foremost, I’m sorry you experienced that.’”
Unfortunately, for Johnson Jr., trying to evoke empathy within his colleague wasn’t successful and their relationship was never the same. The truth, Johnson Jr. says, is that “bystanders are not always self aware enough to acknowledge or [own] their own blind spots or equipped with the tools to resolve their toxicity.”
In that case, it’s time to protect yourself before their behavior does any damage (or any more damage) to your sense of self worth. So manage your expectations. This person probably isn’t going to change their perspective and you can’t spend your valuable time and energy hoping they will. It can help to emotionally and physically (or virtually) step away from this coworker, even if you two are close.
Remind yourself that you matter. You come first and it’s usually impossible to build a psychologically safe relationship with someone who doesn’t share the same values.
Like with all the toxic coworker types, you can try to help someone transform, but ultimately it’s not up to you to fix the person’s behavior. You’re at your job for you, and your own well-being comes first.