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Build Your Career Office Life

Toxic Co-Worker Test: How to Identify and Avoid Them

Toxic Co-Worker Test: How to Identify and Avoid Them
Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock

When you're starting a new job, you hope that you'll get along with your boss and co-workers. For the first few days or weeks, everything seems great. People are friendly and helpful, and some of them even offer a few suggestions for local lunch and coffee spots.

Suddenly, the dynamic changes. Your idea didn't quite work out or a key point was missing from your team's presentation, and one of your new colleagues lashes out at you. Or perhaps that person you introduced yourself to in the kitchen now refuses to stop pestering you at all hours of the workday.

If this sounds familiar, you might have a "toxic" co-worker. According to research from the Association for Psychological Type International, up to 80 percent of all difficulties in organizations stem from strained employee relationships. Van Moody, relationship expert and author of "The People Factor" (Thomas Nelson, 2014), said that poor co-worker relations can cause more than business issues. [Co-Workers Sabotaging Your Career? Here's How to Deal]

"Difficult workplace relationships are far more than a nuisance," Moody said. "They can cause anxiety, burnout, clinical depression and even physical illness."

Moody defines a toxic colleague as one that:

  • Stifles your talent and limits others' opportunities for advancement
  • Twists circumstances and conversations to his or her benefit
  • Chides or punishes others for mistakes rather than helping them make corrections
  • Reminds co-workers constantly or publicly of a disappointing experience or unmet expectation
  • Takes credit or avoids recognition for others' new ideas and extra efforts
  • Focuses solely on meeting her or his goals, at the expense of others
  • Fails to respect co-workers' needs for personal space and time

Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at website design company Blue Fountain Media, further defined four common types of toxic co-workers found in many offices:

The "yes" (wo)man: These workers agree with anything and everything anyone in a meeting says. Instead of vocalizing their own opinions, they'll typically follow the lead from senior members in the room or go along with whatever the majority votes on.

"The best way to handle this is by challenging them with very specific questions about why they ... have a certain stance or viewpoint," Lambert said. "By doing so, you'll be setting the precedent for any meetings going forward, informing them that their reasoning with what they are in support of is crucial."

The time sucker: This is someone who doesn't think about the schedules and time of others. This employee will simply show up at your workstation to ask questions and go on tangents, with no consideration for your time, prior commitments, deadlines, etc. If this occurs frequently, it's most effective to immediately let this colleague know that you're working on something and have a tight deadline, Lambert said. She advised directly asking "time suckers" to schedule time to speak with you later in the day.

The escalator: Some co-workers will escalate every issue to their supervisor and upper management. They struggle with fixing problems or finding solutions on their own or by working with the person directly involved. The best way to handle this is to address toxic employees head-on and directly ask them to approach you right away the next time they have an issue with you or your work, Lambert said.

The negative ninja: Excessive negativity and complaining can be toxic in the workplace. These co-workers will always identify the poor aspects of any situation or project, dragging down the morale of everyone else.

"Try [talking] to them about what can be done to improve their problem," Lambert said. "Advise them to come up with solutions rather than just highlighting what the problems are with no suggestions for improvement."

Setting boundaries for yourself with these toxic types of co-workers can help keep them from wasting your time, energy and resources. Moody suggested setting strict time limits for yourself in working on projects, expressing yourself to let toxic colleagues know where you stand and avoiding nonproductive behavior like office gossip.

"There are no neutral relationships," Moody said. "Each one moves you forward or holds you back, helps you or hurts you. When you know how to handle professional relationships appropriately, it will make the difference between a fulfilling work life and one that is riddled with disappointment, failure and regret."

This article was originally published in 2013 and was updated Nov. 16, 2015.

Nicole Fallon Taylor
Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.