How to cope with toxic colleagues – if you must

February 29, 2012, 2:31 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Dear Annie: Ever since my team merged with a different one, about a year ago, my job has become a nightmare. My new coworkers are hostile, controlling, and go out of their way to belittle and intimidate others. They also undermine the work my group is trying to do, partly by denying us access to the support staff we are all supposed to be sharing. It has gotten so bad that a couple of key members of our department have requested, and gotten, transfers out — which further damages our ability to do our jobs here, since we have to train replacements.

My boss is aware of the situation, but he’s a non-confrontational kind of guy who doesn’t want to rock the boat. (The merger of our two groups was his idea.) Our human resources people have often said that anyone should feel free to come to them with problems, without fear of retaliation, but I wonder if I can trust them. If I complain to HR and my hostile colleagues react by getting me fired, do I have grounds for a lawsuit? — Fed Up

Dear Fed Up: Yikes. Unfortunately for you, anti-retaliation laws do not cover sheer nastiness — unless it arises from discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, age, or religion, or if you are a whistleblower who has reported unlawful behavior (insider trading, for example) to government regulators.

“Each state has its own retaliation statutes, but in the vast majority of places, in order for you to have grounds for legal action, the hostility has to be connected to one of these public-policy issues,” says Daniel J. Kaiser, a partner in New York City employment law firm Kaiser Saurborn & Mair. If you’re simply being treated badly — or if, as you fear, you get fired — because your coworkers are mean and obnoxious, you won’t have a leg to stand on.

MORE: What’s hiding behind the buzzwords in job ads?

“So you have two choices here,” says Linnda Durré, a consultant who specializes in resolving the kinds of conflicts you are describing. “Either you can go over your boss’s head to his boss, and at the same time take the human resources people at their word and lodge a formal complaint with them. Let them investigate and try to fix the problems. Or you can leave.”

Sadly, according to Durré, who wrote an insightful book called Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against the Co-Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day, dilemmas like yours are not at all uncommon. “Change is one of the few constants in business,” she says. “Sometimes the Evil Empire takes over.” Your boss’s boss, alas, may be no help, she adds: “In some organizations, the evil goes all the way to the top, and trickles all the way down to the mailroom.”

If you decide to bring the HR people into it, two suggestions: Take someone with you, or ideally more than one person, who can corroborate what you’re saying. “To some extent, there is safety in numbers,” notes Durré. You’re less likely to be dismissed as a whiner (or retaliated against) if others back up your version of events.

And second, document everything. “You need evidence for your claim that your colleagues’ hostility is affecting productivity. Bring emails, memos, anything you can point to that supports what you’re saying,” she advises. “It’s in the company’s best interest to resolve conflict whenever possible because, in the long run, low morale, a hostile work environment, and high turnover are very costly.”

Let’s suppose you do all the right things, and nothing changes. “You can still take control over your own life,” says Durré. Stacks of research over the past 30 years have proven beyond doubt that chronic stress will eventually make you sick, and poison your life and relationships outside of work, unless you work extra hard at taking care of yourself.

MORE: Will your company back your new business idea?

Durré’s book includes a checklist of stress-busting measures that can help: Get enough sleep, exercise, eat a healthy diet, drink water, take vitamins, spend as much time as you can with friends and family members who love you, and carve out space in your schedule for activities you enjoy and that will help you relax.

You can also try to get some psychological distance from your horrible office by “realizing your own issues, and analyzing your own buttons that are getting pushed at work,” Durré says. The more you can train yourself to step back, take a deep breath, and not let your antagonists get to you, the better off you’ll be.

Ignoring the vicious politics and concentrating instead on excelling at your job is an essential strategy here, too — especially if, as you suspect, your colleagues will be gunning for you, once you’ve complained about them to higher-ups. “Be very, very good at what you do,” Durré advises. “Don’t give anyone an excuse to fire you.”

Ultimately, though, the real question may be why you have sat still for your coworkers’ abusive behavior for so long. After all, as you note, others in your group have left rather than tolerate it. “Healthy people don’t put up with this,” Durré says. “They get away from toxic environments any way they can. They start their own companies, either by themselves or with friends, or they find a better place to work.”

Your best bet may be to do likewise. Even in this iffy job market, get out there and start looking. If nothing else, taking action toward finding something better will make you feel less powerless.

Talkback: Have you ever found yourself in a toxic workplace? What did you do about it? Leave a comment below.