How to Handle the Mean Girl at the Office
Last Updated: May 24, 2017
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Unless you’re fortunate enough to be best friends with all of your co-workers (and your boss), chances are that you’ve come across a bad egg among your colleagues. You may have had to deal with consistent bad behavior from this toxic co-worker who not only causes drama, but is also downright mean to your face. And this man or woman makes you dread going to the office and has you longing for quittin’ time each day. But you don’t have to suffer an insufferable co-worker silently. Here’s exactly what to do when faced with the office mean girl or guy.
DON’T TAKE THEIR BEHAVIOR PERSONALLY
If someone is directing hateful behavior toward you without you having done anything to provoke it, then it's not your problem. “Who knows what it is — a bad day, bad year, a bad life? Jealous of others’ accomplishments? But it isn’t you,” says therapist Helen Chalmers. The sooner you realize that there’s nothing you’re doing to deserve poor treatment, the easier it will be to let the mean colleague’s conduct roll off your back. It may help, suggests Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, to make a list of what you can’t control (how this person treats you) and what you can (your reaction, taking proactive steps to fix the situation). “Focus on what you can control to make change, and accept what you can not,” she says.
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Try to keep your cool and resist reacting. This toxic person wants to get a rise out of you. If you don’t give them what they want, chances are they will move on to another target, Chalmers says. She recommends having a phrase you repeat — therapists call this the “broken record” response — when this person starts bothering you. “This could be something like, ‘thank you for telling me,’ ‘I have to get back to work now’ or anything else that is calm, nonthreatening and discourages further conversation,” she explains. “This is your response to everything she says to you. Seriously. Everything.”
FIND YOUR HAPPY PLACE
Find ways to detach and decompress while at the office, suggests workplace expert Heather Monahan. “Create a safe space for yourself in your cubicle where you have pictures of your family and those you love,” she says. “Take a walk outside once or twice a day to breathe.” Taking time for yourself and remembering what really matters will help you keep everything in perspective.
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STAY OUT OF OFFICE GOSSIP
Rather than making your life miserable, the mean guy or girl may try to get you onto his or her side by confiding in you about how terrible someone else in the office is, Monahan says. Soon enough, however, he or she will be talking about you behind your back as well. Instead of being this person’s co-conspirator, which will inevitably come back to bite you, make a pact with yourself to stay out of the drama. “When you take the high road at work and let others know that you don’t participate in gossiping about others you set yourself apart and you won’t burn bridges,” she says.
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ASK FOR HIS OR HER HELP
Enlisting the toxic co-worker’s help can be an effective strategy to disarm him or her, according to consultant Eileen Scully, who focuses on relationships among women in the workplace. She suggests taking the person aside for a private conversation and saying something like: “I’ve noticed that when we are both in meetings with the design team, you [exhibit a specific behavior], which leads to my ideas not being heard. I need your help. How can we come into these meetings with a united approach so that the designers see our total concept and can tailor their designs to that?” By putting your concern toward getting a better business result, you make it hard for him or her to decline helping you, she says. Speaking up also puts the offender on notice that you’re aware of this behavior and how it’s affecting other people’s success.
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STAND UP FOR YOURSELF
You may need to take a more direct approach to get the behavior to stop, says certified life coach Tara Bradford. “Confront the co-worker in a way that seeks to understand why they are treating you that way,” she advises. “Focus on the facts to avoid getting emotional or defensive. Ask something direct like, ‘Did I do something to upset you?’” Usually, she says, this is enough for the person to realize that they can’t treat you with such disrespect anymore.
LIMIT YOUR INTERACTIONS
If this person is really making your life hell, limit your time around him or her as best as you can, Scully says, especially if they’re a higher-up. “If he or she is in a position of power or influence and you are not a peer, your best approach is to avoid one-on-one interactions,” she says. “If this is not possible, try to include a peer of theirs — your own boss, perhaps — in as many interactions as possible.” Chances are, she explains, the toxic person’s behavior will adjust when others are around, likely for the better.
If the behavior becomes bullying or aggressive, be sure to document everything, says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula. “Save all the emails, keep a running diary — with times and dates — of incidents and, if there are witnesses, try to record some of their corroboration.” The reason? If this situation ends up requiring intervention, the documentation will be necessary. “Plus, frankly, some people find it allows them to feel some sense of control over the situation if they can at least keep a record of what is going on,” she adds.
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DON’T LEAVE YOUR OWN PAPER TRAIL
While you’re documenting the bully’s bad behavior, make sure you’re not leaving a paper trail of your own. “The combination of anger, emotion and email is deadly,” Monahan says. “Be sure not to go down this path.” If you need to vent about the mean guy or girl, do so only with nonwork friends and using nonwork devices (your personal email on your own laptop, not the one on loan to you from the company you work for). This way, if you bring the situation to your boss or HR, your record will be squeaky clean.
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TALK TO YOUR BOSS (OR HR)
When conditions become unbearable or the toxic worker is spreading lies or stopping work from getting done, then it’s time to consult with a boss, Durvasula says, using your trusty notes as a guide for your conversation. “Don’t make your concerns accusatory,” she advises. “Frame it as ‘having difficulty working with someone and not wanting it to impede the mission and goals of the company.’” Keep the conversation fact-based. Remember, this is your workplace; your talk is not a therapy session.
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