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BioHazard - Protecting Yourself from Toxic Coworkers

5/1/2013 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Mike Verano

As an Employee Assistance Program Specialist who routinely sees clients for work-related stress issues, I often hear the expression, "My work place has become toxic." What most people mean by this is that there is a person, or persons, who are filling the workplace with negative attitudes and behaviors, and that this experience is contributing to low morale, high stress, and the feeling that one needs to go through a decontamination process before returning home.

Who are these people and, more importantly, is there something we can do to protect ourselves from the hazardous waste they leave in their wake? The short answer is "yes" there is something we can do. The longer answer is that doing something about this requires that we take special precautions, stay alert and, if necessary, have an evacuation plan at the ready.

According to Wikipedia a toxic employee is "a worker who is motivated by personal gain (power, money, or special status), uses unethical, mean-spirited and sometimes illegal means to manipulate and annoy those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase power, money or special status or divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and misdeeds."

Let's start by being honest and admitting that all of us are "motivated by personal gain." The difference between looking out for oneself and the hazardous worker is in the techniques they use to obtain these personal gains and that their gains come at the great expense of others. While it's certainly possible that there are some people who suffer from chronic pain in the butt syndrome, and are essentially hard-wired to behave the way they do, I think that most of these folks are made, not born, this way. (Admittedly, this is the eternal hopeful therapist in me saying this).

Most of these people probably enjoyed their job at some point. The move toward toxicity usually begins harmlessly. A joke here, a sarcastic remark there, an explicit message left on the company bathroom wall. In time, however, the attitude becomes a primary defense mechanism for a person who has lost the ability and/or willingness to try to change. When they become the dominant force in a company, they can squeeze the life energy out of its workers. These are not necessarily evil people, they have just learned that expecting the worst makes life at work more understandable and predictable, and it requires less energy. It is far easier for them to point fingers instead of lifting them to help others. It requires much less energy to ridicule than to reason and in the end saying, "I told you so," means never having to take responsibility.

When it comes to working with these people we can follow the advice of those who work around actual toxic material and Verify, Contain, and Remove. Here are some tips for putting this into practice:

1. Verify: Make sure that you are actually dealing with someone who has become toxic. Simply having a "bad day at the office" and making a negative comment or two about the boss does not mean that someone is a danger to the work environment. Look for a consistent pattern of negative behavior and talk. See if others around you feel the same about the person, or people involved. Feeling like your personal boundaries have been violated whenever you interact with someone is another good indicator of toxicity, as is the feeling that the person has an insatiable need for attention.

2. Contain: Maintain a healthy perimeter between yourself and the toxic person. If you must interact, stick to facts, and avoid being drawn into personal conversations. Withdraw attention from their antics, rants, and ramblings and never answer their question of "Want to know what I think?" with anything other than, "Look at the time, I have a meeting to get to."

3. Remove: Ultimately, only those in charge can take steps to remove a toxic person from the workplace*. However, those impacted by the daily poison can assist in this process by speaking up for themselves and their work environment. Become an activist at work and avoid the passive response of coming to work in the emotional equivalent of a hazmat suit. Create a workplace Environmental Protection Agency and go out of your way to be positive, supportive and helpful. It is often the case that when other workers refuse to play in the toxic person's reindeer games, the toxic person loses interest and seeks unhealthier pastures.

In the end, toxic workers are simply dysfunctional people who bring their negative coping skills to the work setting. Identifying that these skills are simply attempts on their part to have some sense of control over their lives allows us to stop taking their actions personally and practice keeping control over our attitudes and responses. In this way, even if the toxic person never cleans up their act, our days are not contaminated with harmful negative energy that we end up unintentionally bringing home with us.

* It is sometimes the case where the toxic person is the person in charge. This creates obvious extra challenges and some careful planning in order to protect both one's sanity and employment. First and foremost, document your experiences, but avoid diagnosing and getting over-emotional (save that for your therapy journal). Stick to facts and include names of anyone else who might have witnessed the boss's antics. If you are not able to take a break from work, i.e. vacation, sick leave, or mental health days, make an extra effort to stay on-task and perform to the best of your abilities. In the face of any dysfunctional behavior by others the old 12-Step axiom of "Living well is the best revenge" can serve to extend one's career. Finally, be ready to go above your boss or utilize your evacuation plan. Leaving a toxic boss is not an act of defeat, it's a courageous act of no longer participating in an abusive relationship. Move out of victim mode and into survivorship. There's a good chance that you will not be alone and can start a support group for other survivors.

Mike Verano is a licensed therapist and EAP Specialist with REACH EAP & Workplace Solutions. He is also a cancer survivor and, most importantly, a grandfather.

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