How to Handle Mean Coworkers 

Updated Dec 21, 20223 min
How to Handle Mean Coworkers 

How to Handle Mean Coworkers 

Caroline BantonUpdated Dec 21, 20223 min
How to Handle Mean Coworkers 

Every workplace has one. The bad coworker who always makes life difficult and even thrives on confrontation. It would be nice if there were some way to avoid interaction with these individuals but, sadly, there are times when you have to deal with a toxic coworker to get things done.

Some of us have more patience than others when accommodating people’s idiosyncrasies. This article will tell you how to identify a toxic coworker (even if it’s you!) and how to mitigate the harm they inflict by confronting them either alone or with a group. We also show communication strategies to address their prickliness so that you find a path to a resolution and don’t come away nursing your wounds.

How to Identify a Toxic Coworker

Annoying co-workers come in many forms. Some are just plain difficult. They will challenge every suggestion or request just because they can. Others will engage in more egregious behavior like backstabbing, gossiping, or agreeing to be a contributor and then reneging.

Just like the high school bully is deep down a very insecure person, the toxic coworker often has their own inner challenges. They might be lonely, they might hate their job, or they might have had a difficult life that causes them to be defensive and edgy. Some might respond to empathy more than aggression.

In case you’re wondering if you could be a mean or toxic coworker, here are three ways to tell and what you can do about it, according to Monster.

For more on workplace relationships, read "Understanding and Navigating Power Dynamics in the Workplace"

1. You’re Selfish

Selfishness is a trademark of toxic people. They tend to only think about how things benefit them. If any of the following are familiar, you might be guilty of selfishness.

  • The printer is jammed but you have to finish a project, so someone else can fix it.

  • A coworker did the bulk of a project, but you helped out and will totally claim that it was your project.

To mend your ways, you could show empathy to others by helping out more even though it requires your time, crediting your coworkers rather than yourself, and just being more interested in other people.

2. You’re Judgmental

Are you critical of other people’s efforts? Worse, do you take pleasure in their mistakes? If so, your own self-confidence may be the problem. People who feel good about themselves are more likely to want to help others when they see them struggle rather than criticize them. After all, don’t you make mistakes too?

Rather than be judgmental, offer to help others by supporting them, not criticizing them. They may not want your help, but the offer is enough to start with.

3. You’re a Gossip

Feeling the need to talk about others reflects poorly on you, particularly if you are spreading rumors. Why are you so concerned with other people’s business? Sometimes, it’s because other people’s misfortunes make you feel better. Are you trying to gain attention by being the “go-to” for office gossip, or are you afraid a coworker will look better than you? 

Whatever the motive for gossiping, people will not like or trust you if they think you will talk about them to everyone else.

Always keep what someone tells you to yourself unless there is a good reason for not doing so. Sometimes, you need to act on information if someone’s wellbeing is at risk. Otherwise, be a good sounding board and listener, not a gossiper. It is an honor if someone confides in you, so you should be trustworthy in return.

Dealing with a Mean-Spirited Coworker

If you are new in the workplace, one of the first things you should do is find alliances. It can take a while to build relationships, but knowing who you can trust and who you can go to for advice will be of enormous help. As you get to know people by having coffee with them or chatting, you should start to get a clearer view of the social landscape and which people are the troublemakers.

There are a few ways to manage a difficult coworker. The first thing to consider is whether you alone are affected by the person in question. If others are affected, can you solicit the help of other victims of workplace bullying and hold an intervention? An intervention is where a group of you talk to the person at the same time.

To learn more about workplace relationships, read "How to Make Friends at Work.

Tackling a Difficult Coworker Alone

If you alone have a problem with a coworker, confront them in a private conversation. Ask the person to sit down with you over coffee (in a private location), and give them some specific examples of how their behaviors are interfering with you and with the workplace as a whole. The goal is for the person to see the error of their ways and commit to changing.

Communicating with a difficult person is an art. They are likely to be offended by anything you say. Don’t expect a great outcome! Keep calm and hope that what you say will sink in eventually. Say what you need to, and then try to be patient while you wait to see if your words have had any effect. Here are some tips for this difficult conversation.

  • Try to arrange a time for coffee, and choose a location where you won’t be overheard.

  • Prepare what you want to say ahead of time, and use one or two examples to support your points. Any more, and you will lose clarity and focus.

  • Try not to use the word “You” but talk more about how the person’s behavior affects others. For example, don’t say, “You always delay projects because you won’t get the job done when asked.” Instead, say, “The rest of the team feels frustrated because without everyone's unquestioning input, they can’t complete projects on time.”

  • Let the person respond to what you have said.

  • Listen to them. They might tell you that they are having problems personally. They might hate their job. You might find out something that explains their behavior, and they might need empathy and even psychological counseling. If so, find a way to encourage them to seek help.

  • Don’t expect the person to change immediately. Your best hope is that they will think about what you have said.

  • Be prepared to be on the receiving end of their ire. They may use gaslighting tactics (saying things that aren't true) to try to get you to react. Keep calm and just listen. Don’t be defensive. Think about whether they have a point, and, if so, acknowledge that and be open to discussing those issues too. Otherwise, tell them that you can agree to disagree.

  • Try to be optimistic. Ask them to think about what you have said, and see if you can get them to agree to a follow-up meeting to discuss options to resolve things. This will give them time to think things over.

You may have to talk to the person a few times before you see any attempt at change in the work environment. But having a frank conversation every time an incident occurs will show them that they can no longer get away with the behavior and that could be enough to improve your working relationship.

It is unlikely that you are the only person on the receiving end of an office bully's antics. In that case, consider asking others to engage in a group meeting. There is power in numbers.

Tackling a Coworker With Team Members

A coordinated intervention rather than a one-on-one conversation may pack more of a punch when confronting rude coworkers. You will have the support of your colleagues, which will force the target to take the accusations more seriously. An intervention could be conducted in an informal way, such as over coffee, but respect the other person’s privacy and choose a location where no one can overhear.

Again, each individual should prepare what they want to say about the coworker's behavior and its effects before the meeting, and they should follow the communication guidelines outlined above.

It is a good idea to ask an independent third party to help with an intervention. Try a professional HR consultant or a career coach who can work with everyone involved to find a resolution. Using a third party will require involving human resources and management. Before you do, be sure you have incidents documented so that the issue will be taken seriously and investigated.

Summary Tips for Handling Mean Coworkers

Now that you know how to recognize a toxic or mean coworker, here are some summary tips on how to deal with them.

  • Make sure the mean coworker is not you!

  • Document incidents of bad behavior so that you have a record

  • Talk to the person, and practice effective communication skills

  • Listen to them, show empathy, and be patient

  • Consider a group intervention

  • Consider consulting with HR and using a third party or a career coach to mediate

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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