I have a regular office job, like so many of you out there. And I’m guessing what I write here may resonate with you. If it does, all I can say is I’m sorry and I hope it gets better for you.
I wanted to talk a little about….toxic co-workers. Yep. We’ve all dealt with them. That cancerous attitude of one or two individuals who can bring down the morale of an entire office. But have you really dealt with them, or have you just had to occupy the same space with them?
I read some articles recently on toxic co-workers here and here, and based off of them, and my own experiences, I came up with a quick list of the worst energy-sucking toxic co-workers I’ve had to deal with so far in my working career, and what I’ve tried to help mitigate some of the toxicity.
Bad News Bears – the co-worker that loves bad news. I don’t know how these people come into existence. I have at least one of these in my office. He’s an engineer and loves when something goes wrong. I see a smirk creep onto his face the minute he has something bad to share. Recently, the A/C in his office didn’t come on (the horrors!). He’s had this “issue” before and usually comes to me to complain. Now, I have no problem putting in an official ticket to have the issue looked at. But he doesn’t start off with, “hey my A/C didn’t come on, can you put a ticket in to have it inspected?”. He came in with “[insert a/c co. here] sucks! I’m on their 24-hour line and no one picks up!” I say to him, “Well, I put the tickets in to have the A/C inspected since Joe here at the office is the one who handles the issues. Want me to put a ticket in for you? It’ll be worked on today.” His answer was, “No. My A/C came on.” He’d spent the first two hours of the day huffing about the company who takes care of this building because his A/C ultimately delayed in turning on….That seems to be like a subject not worth complaining about. He also loves to “secretly” post angry, negative, and political news stories around the office. Spreading the cynicism, one story at a time.
Chicken Littles – Similar to the bear is the chicken. Chicken littles love to rain on any parade that happens to be passing by. We win a new contract? Great, more paperwork. Free lunch from the high ups? Are they going to start laying people off? New employee in today. They’re probably a jerk, or they plan on taking my job, or both. These people are cynical beyond healthy limits and can’t be happy about anything…ever. They immediately find anything negative they can possibly glean from the news. Even if it’s all speculation. To them, nothing in life can ever be good.
Hot Mess – Oh yes. I directly have to deal with this one. The hot mess is someone who is always disorganized and is constantly looking for help because he/she can’t get their time management skills or personal life under control long enough to get work done. Recently, I was pulled aside by my boss and asked to help this co-worker out. I said, sure, why not. I was caught up with my stuff so I said I’d gladly help her. Turns out, she had gotten slightly behind on some invoices, so her solution, being the Hot Mess that she is, decided to sweep the issue under the rug….for a year. So I came in with no knowledge but was able to find the solution and iron out some problems in a decent amount of time and turn it over to the boss. Problem with the Hot Messes, is that once they find out you’re willing to help, they cling onto you like a June Bug on a hot summer night. All of a sudden I was tasked, by her and my boss, to refile her invoicing system because she’d neglected to keep things in her file folders, and instead, slapped them in boxes and on her desk, in amongst her personal papers and bills. I got her files put away, and told her to take her personal papers home with her, then tried to help her organize her office (it looks like a paper mill exploded in there), but it’s still a mess. These people are dangerous because the minute you lend them a hand, they try to take you down with them. Innocently enough anyway, which can make it even harder to push away from.
The Drama Queen/King – we’ve all dealt with these, as friends, relatives and coworkers. I have a few in my office. Everything is a disaster. Recently a company in our complex renewed their lease. In their lease they purchased parking spaces. Some of those parking spaces were where some of our employees would park. Mind you, they were open spots before, but now they have been purchased. The spots they did not purchase were marked as “Open”. Simple enough. The building’s facilities people were slow in getting us this news, which was a little…irritating I guess, since I came to work and wasn’t sure what was going on. But I asked the building rep, she told us what was going on, and that was that….for most of us anyway. Four months later, and I’m still hearing complaints about this company reserving parking spots. “Well where’s our reserved spots??” “Why didn’t they tell us this was going to happen?” “This is stupid”. We don’t have reserved spots because we didn’t pay for them. They told us late, yes, but they did explain it. No it’s not, you’re just a child because someone is parking where you did. And for some reason, I’m the central drop-off for complains. Guess what folks????
Again, this kind of stuff seems so trivial and worthless to me. Who cares if you now have to park in another space. Do you really have nothing else going in your lives that this is what you choose to focus on? Are you eight years old????
The Sociopath – Engineers (at my job anyway) are a different species. Or really, people who highly specialize in a field of study are of a different variety of people. Some, forget about all other aspects of life, specifically the social aspects, and fail to hone this skill. I have one like this at work. She has a very hard time making eye contact (she usually just shuts them as she speaks), and announces that she doesn’t understand that “feely stuff. I’m an engineer.” Those are her words. Not kidding. Now I’m not much for touchy, feely, romcom, gushy stuff, but I definitely don’t use my career choice as the reason for my lack of empathy. She has also told others that she (and I’m paraphrasing only slightly) doesn’t associate with people who don’t have degrees. Wow. She also has had episodes where she will burst into your meeting and tells everyone you’re doing it wrong (true story unfortunately). This type of person is particularly hard to deal with because there really is no easy way of dealing or reasoning with her. I seriously think she has no capacity to know how she is acting. There are people out there with no common sense filter.
So how do you deal with these cancerous attitudes? Sometimes it’s really hard. Here’s a few things I’ve done to try to mitigate some of the attitude floating in our tiny office. It’s not a full list, but they’re things that have worked for me over the years:
1. Commiserate with the commiserator – but only for a while. Sometimes if you commiserate with a Chicken Little or a Bad News Bear, for some reason, they seem to perk up. I don’t know why this is but experience tells me it’s worked. Maybe sometimes these people just need to feel like someone is on their side. “Janice, ugh, I hate to ask you this, but these jerks at corporate need another copy of the M&P report. Would you be able to send them another? They said you didn’t send one but I’m sure you did. Those guys at corporate are just a bunch of jerks.” Even if Janice actually did forget, you’re immediately putting yourself on her side. She’ll probably complain (because nothing ever is her fault) and just let her.
One word of caution though. Don’t let the pessimist in your office infiltrate your mind. These people are great at it. Before you know it, you can start taking this negative attitude on like second nature. After you commiserate with Janice, try to talk with someone in your office with a more positive attitude, or just make sure you can refocus yourself back to your more positive self.
2. Set limits with the Hot Mess. He/she will try to take advantage of you because they feel like their life is spiraling out of control. Don’t let them. These people have no concept of organization or control. They always seem to be behind, forgetting things, and on the border of freaking out. I tell the Hot Mess here when I am available to help her organize her life and for how long. No mo’ no less. I let her know what I have to work on so she can’t start sucking me in. I show her how I stay organized in my daily activities. If they continue to grasp onto your pant leg, begging for more and more help, behold the power of no!
3. There’s a couple ways you can handle the drama king or queen: directly or indirectly.
Indirect: When he/she starts their tirade on how everything in this world is against them, or how this horrible thing happened to them this weekend (someone took the last ketchup in the grocery store), or how they have more work to do than anyone else, just ignore them. Don’t bite when they dangle. They’re looking for attention and someone to feel sorry for them. Don’t let them. Hopefully they’ll get the hint and shut their mouths, or if nothing else, you just won’t have to listen to them rant, even if they hint at their woes every day.
Direct: Be kind, but help them see solutions, or see that the mountain they think they are climbing really isn’t as big as they think. Yelling at them to shut up, probably won’t work because they’ll probably stick it on their list of drama woes (now Nancy hates me -everyone hates me. I’m probably going to get fired). Won’t help. If they complain about their workload, tell them to talk to the manager about reducing it. If they complain about being tired all the time, tell them to take a personal day. If it’s a personal problem, give them some advice about counselors or churches, etc. that can help. The more you give them reasonable solutions, the more they’ll a) calm down and see how the issue really isn’t that bad, or b) stop talking to you because you obviously just don’t understand their dramatic life. Problem solved either way.
4. Sociopaths can be hard because many times, they just don’t understand anyone else’s reactions to them. Some people are just mean, and there’s not a lot you can do about it, or be responsible for. In the case of my coworker who is blatantly rude to others, a direct approach is the only way to deal with her. I literally have to tell her to not talk to me so rudely, or tell her to stop interfering with my meeting. It sounds harsh but it’s the only way that seems to grab her attention. She immediately stops, like a dog being told no, and backs off. If you aren’t comfortable with directly speaking to a coworker about their mean attitude, talk to your manager. That’s what they’re there for. They are there to mitigate issues like this.
I’m no psychologist or expert in the line of toxic employees, but I have dealt with quite a few different, and sometimes harsh personalities. Mostly I think you have to find out what kind of personality your coworker is and try different solutions. I used to try to combat the pessimists in the office, which usually led to arguments and no production. I learned what worked for them and found ways to be productive with them, even in their sour moods. It just takes time and observation. Not everyone is going to have the same personality as you and you just have to deal with the cards you’re dealt. Hopefully this little list helps your eight hours at the office pass by a little smoother. Happy officing.