7 Ways to Deal With a Toxic Co-Worker

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By Marcelle Yeager

Do you feel exhausted the second you walk into your office in the morning? Do you sometimes come home from work feeling completely and utterly emotionally drained?

If it's not the work itself or the job that's bringing you down, it could be one of your co-workers. Let's be honest: All of us at one time or another have brought personal issues into the office. The problem starts when personal issues affect the person's work or the work of colleagues.

There is another type of co-worker: one who is unhappy with his or her job and shows it in a negative way each and every day. This fosters an extremely negative work environment. The question becomes: How can we handle toxic co-workers so that our work is not interrupted and we are not emotionally taxed at the end of every day?

1. Set time limits. Offer a moment of sympathy – and no more than that. Unless "psychiatrist" or "psychologist" is in your job title, it's not your responsibility to boost someone's mood at work. You can offer to listen for five minutes or simply explain that you're overloaded with work, trying to meet a deadline or that nature is calling (even if it isn't).

2. Don't engage. It can be hard, but try to refrain from offering advice on a personal matter or comparing it to something you've been through. This will only encourage further discussion. You can simply say: "I'm sorry to hear that." If you're talking to a colleague who is dissatisfied with work, try not to agree, because that will likely egg him or her on.

3. Keep it professional. If you must interact regularly because you work closely together, develop clear agendas for meetings and have a set end time. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a gripe session. Stay on professional topics only. If it veers off course, change the subject back to the work topic at hand.

4. Dive into work. There are those who like to come to your office or desk and chat incessantly. This is distracting and can add time to your day. Politely tell your colleague that you need to finish work on time, and you must get back to the grind.

5. Throw it back. When you are dealing with the perpetual pessimist, tell him or her why you like your job and why you are happy at the company. Eventually, he or she should get the hint that you're not on his or her side and therefore not the best person to complain to.

6. Create deterrents. If you have a door, close it several times a day, and place a sign on it that simply states: "Please do not disturb – tight deadline" or "On an important call." You can have several prepared that you rotate. It's tougher if you're in an open plan office or have a cubicle. If you work well listening to music and can get away with it at your office, wear headphones. There are many co-workers who will still think it's OK to come up and tap you on the shoulder, but it should deter some. You can also consider putting a sign and letter holder on your desk or cubicle wall that explains you're busy with work and asks people to leave a note for you to respond to later. Again, this is not going to solve the problem completely, but it could save you some drama.

7. Confront the problem head on. If you feel comfortable doing so, it may be worthwhile to tell the person you cannot listen to his or her issues anymore. Explain why you cannot engage with him or her on personal matters anymore, perhaps because chatting a lot at work translates into longer hours, disruption of your concentration or missed deadlines. This probably won't work well with someone you work very closely with all the time. In that case, it would be preferable to involve a superior in the conversation.

These co-workers are in every office of every profession, and we will probably never be able to escape them. However, there are ways to lessen and possibly eliminate the burden. Many people could be more productive during the workday and not work long hours if it weren't for personal chats or complaint sessions. If you want to be at work to work and hightail it out of there on time, limit your interaction with toxic co-workers. It is completely exhausting to deal with your own workload, your co-workers' job issues and their personal life.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.
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