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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

Being a team player is a delicate balance of doing well for yourself and those around you. What if you're around someone who is hindering those goals? Having a toxic co-worker can affect your work and well-being.

According to a survey by talent management system Cornerstone OnDemand, toxic employees have a negative effect on the performance of their co-workers, likely because they have a stronger influence on stress and burnout than on day-to-day task completion.

As a result, 54 percent of those survey noted they are more likely to quit when they have a toxic employee on their team. [See Related Story: Bullying in the Office: Why You Need a Policy]

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.

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

Additionally, the toxic behavior is contagious and can spread from co-worker to co-worker at faster rates for larger teams, Cornerstone OnDemand reported.

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."

Additional reporting by Shannon Gausepohl. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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 managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.