Toxic coworker

Understanding Toxic Behavior in the Workplace – and What You Can Do About It

Employee Relations
Written by Carol Bowser


Toxic coworkers? How many articles have you seen about how to deal with a toxic coworker? I don’t really see too many articles out there saying, “Are you a toxic coworker?” So let’s take a minute to go a few steps back and talk about what people view as toxicity in coworkers or toxicity in working environments.

What is Toxic Behavior?

Based on my 20 years of experience helping people address conflict in the workplace, the word “toxic” is really, really loaded. People use that word to describe their experiences. So what is it that they’re describing? Well, they’re describing feeling belittled, people taking credit for work done by others, or not pulling their weight. It can also involve complaining about the work or the workplace, making aggressive comments, undermining others, or critiquing their work.

Leadership and Toxicity

Leaders who never seem to acknowledge what’s going on or seem to drive for results in a way that undermines people can also contribute to toxicity. Sometimes, it feels like working relationships with those who have better professional chemistry get all the recognition. Those who may be doing good work but aren’t getting noticed often feel left out.

So rather than using the shorthand word “toxic,” take a couple of minutes to look at what categories of behaviors you and other people are using to describe toxicity. Of course, toxic work environments are not good. However, it really impedes the ability for individuals to say, “What can we do about this?” What am I actually complaining about? That gives people a direction to say, “Okay, let’s focus on this and see what we can do about it.”

Recognizing Toxicity in Ourselves

Now, let’s shift the focus from recognizing toxic behavior in others to recognizing it in ourselves. It’s easy to point fingers, but sometimes we might be the ones contributing to a toxic environment without realizing it.

Are You a Toxic Coworker?

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Taking Credit for Others’ Work: Do you find yourself often taking credit for work done by your teammates? If so, this behavior can create resentment and contribute to a toxic atmosphere.
  • Complaining Constantly: Are you always complaining about your work or the workplace? Constant negativity can bring down the morale of the entire team.
  • Undermining Others: Do you frequently criticize or undermine your colleagues’ work? This behavior can create a hostile environment and damage working relationships.
  • Ignoring Feedback: Do you dismiss feedback from others or refuse to acknowledge your mistakes? Being unwilling to learn and grow can hinder teamwork and productivity.
  • Playing Favorites: Do you show favoritism towards certain coworkers while ignoring others? This can lead to feelings of resentment and unfairness among team members.

It’s important to recognize and address toxic behavior in the workplace, whether it’s coming from others or from ourselves. By being mindful of our actions and their impact on others, we can contribute to a healthier and more positive work environment for everyone.

So, rather than just labeling it as toxic, let’s take the time to understand and address the specific behaviors that are causing problems.