Dealing with Toxic Coworkers

Kristine Berry

By Kristine Berry, RDH, MSEC, senior consultant

There’s one in every dental office.

She’s the colleague who is always late to the huddle and never cleans her operatory on time. She’s apologetic, comes prepared with an excuse, and promises this will be “the last time!” You’ve been the nice guy, and have even covered up for her. But, now, you are sick of it.

Or, in another scenario, this may be the coworker who takes credit for work you did. She steals your ideas and talks about you to others. A master of double-talk and double-dealing, she’ll deny everything and try to convince you – and others – that you’re the crazy one. You are angry and obsessed with her behavior, and sometimes you wonder if you are going crazy.

The issue of problem coworkers has received less attention than that of managing a problematic boss of abrasive employees. Yet, in one study, 80 percent of people have reported that a single coworker has contributed significant stress to their workday.

This stress isn’t just dangerous to employees; it has a negative impact on the entire dental practice and company. It can lead to poor work performance, absenteeism and health problems. Sometimes outstanding employees who see no solution to a toxic coworker look for a new job. In today’s competitive work environment, where finding and retaining talented people is increasingly difficult, this is a loss few dental groups can afford.

Complaining to management or the owner about a problematic coworker is often ineffective and can backfire, making you look like the problem. But, there are some useful steps you can take to deal with this common workplace challenge. Remember, if you believe you have some control, you do.

Look first to yourself
Are you the problem? Do you listen without interrupting? Do you take everything personally? Are you willing to change? Taking responsibility for your part will make it much clearer regarding how to proceed with a problematic peer.

Make sure this isn’t about a personality conflict or office politics
Gender, race, culture and religion affect behavior in the workplace. What may be offensive to you may be reasonable to someone of another race, culture, generation or country/state of origin. For example, customs vary as to what is considered acceptable vs. abrasive behaviors. The rules of workplace behavior may have been hidden from co-workers, absent from professional resources or a result of family upbringing. Your coworkers may be unaware of the impact of their actions or words.

Some may not have received the training or tools to resolve conflicts or issues. For example, one team member shared that growing up, she often laughed when disciplined, as it was a way to save face in front of her older siblings. In her world smirk or laughter was a go-to reaction, not a sign of insolence or insubordination. However, she brought this behavior into the office, and when her manager provided her with feedback, he believed she was uncaring and perhaps not a good fit for the practice. Understanding critical gender, racial and cultural disparities can provide a new perspective and lead to a conversation about expected professional behavior.

Classify the problem objectively
Measuring the problem helps make it less threatening. Not every problematic colleague is the same. One approach is to identify whether this situation falls into one of three categories: difficult, challenging or toxic. Determining this will help you take the right steps.

  • This is a situation that can usually be solved by a single action. For example, your coworker loves to schmooze and interrupts your workflow with comments, personal problems or requests for help. A one-on-one friendly conversation in which you explain why this is a problem for you usually helps. Offering to go to lunch together, or scheduling time to talk, can help avoid turning a pesty colleague into an enemy.
  • This is a situation that requires more work on an ongoing basis. Take the coworker who turns every situation into a competition and can’t seem to grasp the concept of teamwork. In her book, Working with Difficult People, communications consultant Muriel Solomon strongly suggests immediately taking control when a coworker is deceitful, manipulative or exploitive. Stay calm, and be firm and up-front. Refuse to be drawn in, but state how you perceive the problem as clearly and courteously as possible. Understand this behavior has insecurity and anxiety at the root. Reinforcing this person’s self-efficacy and self-confidence in their tasks might influence them to take more ownership of their actions rather than steal yours. You may have to repeat this several times as needed.
  • Like some chemicals in the workplace, certain coworkers may be genuinely harmful to your health. In fact, these people are like a hidden cancer in the workplace, according to psychologists Alan A. Cavaiola and Neil J. Lavender. In their book Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job, they list a range of personality disorders that, when taken to the extreme, can tear a workplace apart. Toxic behavior can consist of any action that creates emotional distress sufficient to disrupt organizational functioning. Hence, a toxic co-worker is defined as any individual whose interpersonal behavior causes psychological pain in coworkers, sufficient to disrupt organizational operation. In extreme cases, abrasive behavior can impact productivity to the point of paralysis.

In some cases, the best solution is to avoid the toxic person as much as possible, keeping all interactions matter-of-fact and brief. If that is not possible in your office, consider scheduling a time to speak with this person. If you are successful at creating self-awareness, which changes the toxic behavior, you and your co-workers’ suffering ends and the toxic person may even be grateful for your willingness to take the time to bring this to his/her attention. “It meant a lot that she cared enough to talk to me,” said one former toxic coworker after a teammate took her out to lunch.

Intervening conversation
The following steps are designed to help ensure an intervening conversation is a win-win for everyone involved:

  1. Describe the individual’s value to you as a co-worker; don’t bother intervening if they don’t have any value.
  2. Explain that you believe you owe it to him or her to clue them in and make them aware of the growing problem.
    • “I had a choice whether or not to talk to you about this, and I feel a responsibility to let you know about these negative ”
  3. Explain that he/she is not the problem. Rather, negative perceptions about his/her interactions with others are the problem.
    • “I don’t want you to be perceived this ”
    • “These perceptions are doing you ”
  4. Describe the perceptions as specifically as you can.
    • “I observed that you do/say….” (Be direct.)
  5. Avoid generalities, such as: “You are rude/ harsh/aggressive/”
  6. Describe the impact this person’s behavior has on others.
    • “When you don’t arrive on time for the huddle, I feel that you are treating us ”
  7. Set consequences for further negative perceptions:
    • “If this continues, I will have to talk with our office manager, Cathy.” (Clearly state the consequence.)

If the situation is truly harmful, it may be time to talk to your manager or owner.  Intervention at this level starts when the toxic employee’s supervisor sits down with this person to address his/her conduct. The intervention is similar in sequence to the above steps, but the supervisor has the authority to:

  • Determine conduct expectations.
  • Evaluate conduct.
  • Set limits and consequences for continued unacceptable conduct.
  • Offer help, such as training, specialized coaching or additional resources.
  • Monitor for improvement.

It is important to emphasize that speaking with, or coaching, a toxic employee assumes your office has a code of conduct and a culture intolerant of mistreatment. If this is not the case, you might consider the cost of staying vs. the costs of leaving. If you have no authority over the toxic co-worker who is making you miserable, and management refuses to intervene, or intervenes unsuccessfully, then another option is to consider other employment opportunities; buff up your resume, brush up on your networking skills and beef up your savings.

Our jobs and careers are an integral part of who we are. Dealing effectively with problematic coworkers can help us maintain successful and satisfying work lives.

Kristine Berry RDH, MSEC

Kristine Berry has worked as a clinician, a dental board examiner, a dental operations executive, a practice management consultant, an educational manager for a global Fortune 500 company and an operational director, overseeing $23 million of revenue for dental service organizations in New Hampshire and North Carolina. Currently, she is a senior consultant, specializing in enhancing group practices. If you have a sticky situation at work, she invites you to contact her via email at [email protected].