How to Save Yourself from Toxic Co-workers

Organic fruits, hormone-free milk, BPA-free bottles…everyone seems to spend a lot of time and effort these days avoiding toxins in the environment. And yet we continue to be vulnerable to toxins at work, and I’m not talking about the chemicals they use to clean the carpets; I’m talking about toxic co-workers. And it’s just as important to protect yourself from them as it is to protect yourself from other environmental toxins.

 Identifying toxic co-workers

Before you can protect yourself from workplace toxins, you have to be able to spot them. Here are some of the most common toxic co-workers:


  • The Schemer: This is the colleague who always has a hidden agenda. Nothing is as simple as it seems with this person. Whether his goal is to get the next promotion or just to make sure you don’t get it, there’s a reason for everything they do.
  • The Informant: This is the colleague who can’t wait to tell the boss anything that makes you look bad.
  • The Thief: While this colleague may not steal your physical belongings, she won’t hesitate to take credit for your work.
  • The Brown-Noser: This colleague has a knack for recognizing what makes other people tick and using that to his advantage. If your boss has an ego, this person will stroke it. If your boss isn’t good at a certain task, this person will always show up to help.
  • The Liar: If this colleague can’t come up with ammunition to make himself look good and everyone else look bad, he’ll just make something up. If the deception later comes to light, he’ll just claim it was an innocent mistake.
  • The Fake Friend: This may be the most toxic co-worker of all, because she pretends to be your friend, all the while plotting your (career) demise. She’ll pump you for all of the information friends typically share, and then use it against you.

Protecting yourself

Toxic co-workers like these can make your work life miserable. But there is a bit of good news: the same basic defense works for all of them.


  • Do your job: The most basic defense is to keep doing your job. Letting your toxic co-worker eat up your time and energy just makes you more vulnerable.
  • Be discreet: According to a survey conducted by Today and Self, 27% of respondents had to deal with a co-worker who spilled their secrets. If you screwed up and fixed it, but still feel like you just have to tell somebody, don’t choose a co-worker. Tell another friend. It might not be as satisfying as telling someone who knows all the office dynamics, but it’s a lot safer. And keep your personal life personal!
  • Face the facts: In your personal life, ignoring red flags in a friendship is unlikely to result in anything worse than hurt feelings. The stakes are a lot higher at work. If something doesn’t feel right, look at the situation with your eyes wide open. Don’t accept an excuse that doesn’t make sense; instead, consider that your co-worker might not have your best interests at heart.
  • Just the facts, ma’am: Toxic co-workers have one huge vulnerability: facts. If you screwed up, tell your boss before your toxic co-worker has the chance. If a co-worker asks you to send her an email detailing your project, go ahead and do it – but copy the boss. Whether a colleague is taking credit for your work or telling the boss about a mistake you supposedly made, facts are an irrefutable defense. And don’t be afraid to use them – your toxic co-worker would do it in a heartbeat.


Toxic co-workers are only powerful as long as we’re willing to pretend they’re not toxic. Once you face up to their toxicity, you can fight back. And, with the facts on your side, you’ll win every time.

photo credit: freeimages





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