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9 ways to deal with toxic people at workplace

By Jaqueline Mahugu | July 13th 2019
Man stressed at work [Photo, Courtesy]

Are you in a toxic workplace?  Christopher Karani, a director at Workforce Africa, tells us what you can do if you find yourself in such a place.

Does your workplace tick these boxes?

Toxic work environments are one of the known causes of mental health problems.

Do you constantly feel like you want to quit?

Do you feel unsafe? 

Is there harassment, bullying, backbiting, selfish and judgmental colleagues?

If you said yes to any of these, then that is a toxic environment. You might think it does not happen frequently, but it will gradually take its toll on your mental and emotional well-being.

Is there anything you can do?

1.  Protect your happy space

One of the ways you can protect your happy space is by, for instance, switching off your gadgets at home.

Maybe your toxic environment comes from your boss, who sends you nasty emails. Don’t look at them when you are at home. You have to guard your happy place, so that you can use that opportunity to decompress. Protect it so that you can have that time to yourself outside the toxic environment.

Create you-time. This can be by making sure you go for all your lunches, or making sure that you leave the office by 5pm. You can identify an activity or an event that helps you decompress. Identify what works for you, which could be going to the gym, yoga, meditation, choir practice or anything that you enjoy doing.

2.  Have people you can decompress with

This could be a trusted colleague that you can discuss with any issues you are grappling with. It can also be your spouse, but with this, you have to be careful so that you don’t just transfer the frustrations from work and take them home.

You can have a group of friends where everyone shares and everyone can vent. If someone else is decompressing about their toxic environment, your responsibility is to listen. The idea is to hear the person out and give them an opportunity to share what they are feeling. Talking to people is therapeutic.

 3.   Seek personal growth

Quitting is not always an option. It can be due to a myriad of reasons like responsibilities and obligations to yourself and family. In this case, have a personal development plan and stick to it. Nowadays, we have opportunities for people to coach you, opportunities to network in person and in LinkedIn, where you can position yourself as looking for other options. Basically, create a plan for your career development and then stick to it. The plan could involve learning a new skill, saving money or establishing something you could do outside of work. This way, even if you are in a toxic environment now, you have a solid plan of exiting later on.

4. Learn to say NO

Saying NO gives you the space to protect yourself. Maybe there are a number of responsibilities that you need to carry out. There are some environments that are defined by a “work-till-you-drop” culture, which can be very stressful. An easy way to protect yourself is to learn to say NO. You do not have to be obnoxious about it. It is about being upfront about your boundaries.

If people know you drop your child in the morning to school and then you come to work at 9am and somebody sets up a meeting at 7am, then it is fine to decline. People need to understand your boundaries and respect them.

Saying NO shields you from a toxic environment, and it shows people that you are taking care of yourself. It helps you be able to cope with that environment. The boundary could be anything – maybe you leave work at 4pm because you have classes in the evening.

Do not answer emails after office hours, leave the work laptop in the office so that no one calls to ask you to log in from home and so forth.

5.  Only participate in upfront communication

One of the characteristics of toxic work environments is gossip and backbiting. Participating in those discussions is digging your own hole and getting into it. Shield yourself from that toxicity by communicating clearly.

For instance, if you have not understood what your boss wants in terms of a task that needs to be done, tell them upfront that you do not and ask that they explain further. This way, when you finish the exercise, the person will not come back and tell you that you did not do the job properly. That is an opportunity for a bad email, which will make your life more difficult.

Being clear upfront and asking people what their expectations are, is one of the ways you can shield yourself from that. Also, focus on the facts. If something happened in the office, what are the facts? Don’t participate in hearsay, corridor talk or ‘who said what’.

6.  Be nice and work hard

Don’t fight fire with fire. If someone is being mean or rude to you and you do the same, that situation will most likely escalate.

Be clear on what you want and your deliverables. Work and hard and do them, but also don’t participate in confrontation. It might seem as if you are being weak or providing an opportunity for them to take advantage of you, but eventually people realise that you are actually adding significant value and will have no ammunition to attack you with.

7.  Nip harassment in the bud

If, for instance, someone is being inappropriate, tell them there and then that they need to stop. Give that feedback on the spot.

If they continue, you escalate it. An escalation could mean reporting to the line manager. It could also mean reporting to the police if the internal structure does not provide resolution of that particular situation. Once it gets there, if the situation has been happening, evidence will be available.

8.  Customise your personal space

You can have pictures that feed your positive energy on your desk or carry earphones to listen to music when you are free. Make your space feel homely to you. If the office allows and you work better in a corner, you can request for an exemption. Just know what works for you and make it happen.

9.   Get out

Nothing is more important than your life and family. You need to draw the line at where your work has a negative impact on your life and your family.

If your workplace glorifies working long hours and your marriage ends in a divorce because of it, it will not be worth it. At the end of the day, your personal well-being and that of your family should be the most important consideration.

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