We’ve all been there: coworkers whispering in little huddles, breakrooms go silent when a certain person enters a room, Facebook Messenger threads filled with “jokes” at certain peoples’ expense. Some workplaces are just plain toxic. I’ve personally had the experience of working in several unhealthy work environments, both retail and corporate.
I’ll admit that I’m a reformed Mean Girl whose insecurities translated into someone who repeated gossip, assumed the worst, and would rather be liked and accepted than be someone of good character. This changed about five years ago when I realized that this behavior was out of alignment with my values and I vowed to stop engaging in gossip and negativity, and I can honestly say I’m much happier for it. But that doesn’t mean my environment has changed. Below are the ways I deal with tricky toxic people and environments without being sucked back into the mess.
1. Be friendly, but don’t be friends.
Some of my best friends to this day are people I’ve met at work. Work can be a fantastic way to make friends, because you are with each other 40+ hours a week anyway, right? But I will say that for every great friend I’ve made, I’ve had my work “friendships” bite me in the ass. While I’m not encouraging you to go complete icy on your coworkers, I would caution putting too much of your social life into your workplace.
As somebody who has made — and lost — great friends in the workplace, I am now extremely judicious about who I engage with socially at work. I’ve seen my friends with looser boundaries fall into some extremely messy situations that could have been avoided if they had relied on outside sources for their socialization. (This is true of friendships, and doubly true of romantic relationships.)
2. Determine your boundaries and stick to them.
What are your work-life boundaries? Will you get drinks with coworkers after work, but won’t go to weekend parties? Are you okay texting coworkers, but no Snapchat? Determine your line and don’t make exceptions. For example, I don’t add coworkers on social media. I don’t find it beneficial and honestly don’t want to know if my sweet elderly coworker has hot takes on the current administration. I’m also fine going to a celebratory work function, but I won’t drink around coworkers (I barely drink as it is, but still). And I absolutely, 100% will not date coworkers. These are my lines, and knowing what your boundaries are helps for when people inevitably try to challenge or question them.
3. Remember that everything you say about someone could get back to the person.
Like I mentioned earlier, I used to be fairly problematic. I felt like if I were criticizing others, I would be immune to criticism, and nobody would see how incredibly insecure I was. Looking back, I’m ashamed at how I acted and I’m glad I no longer have that mentality. But I didn’t change my ways before some, ahem, hurtful things I said got back to the person they were being said about.
Remember that people tend to be who they are. If they gossip with you, they will likely gossip about you. If you are going to say critical and unproductive things about people, you are not owed any reasonable loyalty because you’re not being professional or helpful. Unless you’d put those words in an email and CC the subject of those words, just don’t say them.
4. Vent, but to the right people.
Everyone needs to blow off steam. The more frustrating the job, the more cathartic a good venting session can be. Maybe you have a boss or computer system or policy that drives you absolutely bonkers and you need to share about it or you’ll explode. That’s okay. But there’s constructive debriefing which can be used to find solutions to problems, and then there’s just complaining. Complaining should be done not at work and not with coworkers. Supportive friends, a patient partner, or a therapist should be your go-to for processing your frustrations because they’re less likely to drag you down even farther by commiserating and, again, won’t repeat your frustrations to your colleagues.
5. Keep in mind that gossip reflects more on the gossiper than the target.
Maybe this developed with age, but I used to be tantalized by gossip and now I’m repulsed by it. When I see my (fully grown, should know better) coworkers trashing, criticizing or otherwise being hateful towards someone behind their back, it just makes them look awful. Why would you trust someone like that? Not only is that behavior incredibly unprofessional, it speaks to a lack of integrity, and that is not a cute look. Now when I hear my coworkers liberally sharing their opinions about someone who isn’t there to defend themselves, I either remain silent or play Devil’s Advocate and defend the person, but I never engage. I maintain relentless optimism and make it crystal clear that I take a neutral or positive stance on everything and everyone. Eventually, the gossipers will realize that you won’t be sucked into it. These are phrases I have said in the workplace and have found to work for me:
- “Have you ever tried letting them know about [behavior being complained about]? They may not realize they’re doing it.”
- “They’ve been nothing but pleasant with me. I haven’t observed [insert behavior being complained about].”
- Or simply, “I’m staying out of it.”
Some of your coworkers won’t like your Pollyanna approach because your kindness illuminates their pettiness. And that’s simply okay.
Those are just some of the ways to navigate negative and toxic workplaces. Often the unhealthy vibe comes from management or the general work culture, and that can’t always be changed by one healthy-minded person, but just because you can’t convince others doesn’t mean you have to give up your integrity just to get along. Maintaining friendly relationships with strong boundaries will keep you sane and out of the drama while helping you stay in alignment with your values.
Kate Sortino is a freelance writer currently living in Anchorage, Alaska. She spends her free time reading, drinking coffee, and working a million hours a week to save up to travel for a year. You can see more about her adventures here. She is always cold.