How to Deal with a Hostile Work Environment

Anyone who has has held a few jobs knows what a hostile work environment feels like. It goes like this: the angry co-worker who sits next to you, or a group of glass-half-empty naysayers, or, worse, your naturally moody and suspicious boss, has made you dread coming into work in the morning.

At first, you think you can ignore it, but after awhile the daily negativity gets under your skin. As much as you want to keep your professional relations cordial, difficult people have a way of making a bad work situation feel personal -- and like it's all your fault.

Search Job Openings

In Partnership With

The nation's high unemployment rate, which in June 2010 stood just under 10 percent, doesn't help matters. Companies continue to lay off employees, or institute furlough programs or hire temp workers who make you feel like your job is at risk. In this sort of economy, demoralization in the work force is at an all-time high.

Here are top eight tips for dealing with a hostile work environment:

1. Be prepared to deal with conflicts as they come up.

Don't get pulled into an argument if you can avoid it; and above all, don't instigate drama with insults, sharp comebacks or other negative words. Troublemakers thrive on those kinds of comments -- and are actually seeking them when they come to your desk to complain. Listen, but be true to your code of values. Use as few words as possible to respond, and say politely that you have a deadline and need to get back to work.

2. Extend the hand of friendship.

Sometimes, negative co-workers are simply suffering from poor social skills, trouble at home or an inability to communicate effectively. Rather than reject them, offer to help them solve their problem. Hear them out, think about what they're really trying to say even though they're saying it poorly, and then ask if there's anything you can do to help. But also avoid getting too drawn into their problems when they seek your advice. Point them in the direction of self-help books, career counselors and your company's human resources department. (Don't miss Are Your Work Friends Bringing You Down?)

3. Physically remove yourself.

If you can't avoid conflict because an angry co-worker has suddenly charged over to your desk and is confronting you, focus on how to defuse the situation. First, step back mentally. Focus on breathing calmly and collecting your thoughts. Find a diplomatic way to exit the conversation as quickly as possible. Then leave the room and stay away until the heat of the moment has dissipated. Remember, long, circular and accusatory diatribes sap your strength and make it extremely difficult to get back to work and be productive. Once the storm has blown over, avoid spending time with the co-worker.

4. Set limits.

True, your role at your company may require you to work with a negative person. Still, you can set limits. Only spend time with the person in a structured setting. Stay buttoned-up and professional -- don't provide a sympathetic audience, which will only encourage the co-worker to feel like you are open to hearing constant complaints. State explicitly that you enjoy your job and think about it in a positive way.

5. Keep busy.

Getting back to work is honestly one of the best things you can do to keep yourself grounded in a negative work culture. The requirements of your job are a good reminder that you have something to contribute, that you have skills that you can continue to sharpen and that you're putting up with the negative nonsense for a good reason - your paycheck.

6. Seek feedback from positive co-workers.

If you're dealing with a negative work culture, chances are you have co-workers who are just trying to deal with it, too. Finding a sympathetic work buddy who shares your concerns can be a big mood-lifter. Then get away from your desks, share your thoughts over a cup of coffee for 10 or 15 minutes during your day, and laugh at the craziness of your workplace. You'll feel better knowing you are not alone.

7. Form a social committee to boost staff morale.

If you're feeling energetic or motivated to make some real changes in workplace morale, you might want to consider forming a social committee that plans events where you and your co-workers can get to know each other as people. High-paid executives and corporate officers go on fancy retreats to bond and form personal relationships, and a less expensive version of that is a self-funded social committee. You might all surprise yourselves and actually have some fun together, which will pay off when you're back at work.

8. Polish your résumé.

Sadly, negative people often end up being the last ones to remain in a demoralized workplace. These kinds of people often operate out of fear, and that means they're also fearful of change and moving on. So, be ready to be the one who moves on, especially if your current job doesn't support the career ideals you want to pursue. The negative work culture you're in may not change, but that doesn't mean you're stuck with it. Move on! Polish your resume and actively seek to move to a different department, another office location or a new job entirely.

Next: Watch Your Work Reputation & Relationships - They're All You've Got >>

Joyce Hanson

Joyce Hanson

AOL Blogger

Joyce Hanson is a Brooklyn, New York-based writer, editor and long-time blogger who has written about small business and careers for Crain's New York Business.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

that is the worst advice I have ever heard??? No ONE should ever have to tolerate a hostile environment and the "troublemaker" should be come a job seeker.....that kind of behavior is non-conducisive to the job at hand which is PRODUCTIVITY!!! This kind of undermining within a company is poison and should NEVER be TOLERATED, When someone else bad behavior is causing people to change their natural course of action that person should be REMOVED. A SMART bUSINESS OWNER SHOULD BE WATCHING FOR THESE DO NOTHING JACK WAGONS AND FIRE THEM AS SOON AS THEY ARE IDENTIFIED. uNLESS AN EMPLOYEE IS ENCOURAGING, ENTHUSIASTIC, HELPFUL AND AN ACTIVE CONTRIBUTOR OR THEY ARE TRYING TO BE THEN THEY SHOULD JUST GO HOME. IF someone is causing you to feel threatened, embarrased, humiliated, made fun of bullied or stupid, GO DIRECTLY TO HUMAN RESOURCES, DOCUMENT EVERY THING, INCLUDING WHO IS AROUND WHEN THE BEHAVIOR HAPPENS, THE TIME OF DAY, THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND REPORT IT...IF THERE IS NO HUMAN RESOURCES GO DIRECTLY TO THE INDIVIDUALS SUPERVISOR, IF THEY ARE APART OF THE BEHAVIOR GO TO THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN, IF THE COMPANY IS POISON ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP THEN CONTACT AN ATTORNEY. WORK IS THE ONE PLACE THAT THIS KIND OF BEHAVIOR SHOULD NOTE BE TOLERATED FOR ANY REASON. BE PROFESSIONAL OR BE DISMISSED.

March 01 2013 at 11:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have worked in a hostile environment for 12 years. A large department store whose senior management team takes pride in teaching all younger management workplace harrassment. My co-workers and I finally had to make it into a game. Since our department is right outside HR and store manager and certain department managers cannot walk by without saying something NEGATIVE. We just wait till they say whatever - like they have to go kick the dog! and then go about their business!

October 22 2012 at 1:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


Work place bullying created by management a hostile working conditions read about it but never thought it could happen to me

That's why I created a petition to Governor Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama, which says:

"Stop the workplace bullying caused by unprofessional managers who abuse their power to bully people who work hard"

Will you sign this petition? Click here:


August 19 2012 at 11:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


Work place bullying created by management a hostile working conditions read about it but never thought it could happen to me

That's why I created a petition to Governor Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama, which says:

"Stop the workplace bullying caused by unprofessional managers who abuse their power to bully people who work hard"

Will you sign this petition? Click here:


August 19 2012 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Unfortunatelly jobs are not coming and being every day in this hostile environment is taking tall.
People are not professional and they are more focused on gossiping and back-stubbing then on work.
Supervisor is the same. My complaint to HR ended in negative review and 90 days probation. I left good paid job to pursue my career and ended up working like this.
Get me out of here!
I do not want to quit but patience is running out.

March 16 2011 at 12:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My Regional Vice President - Michael Scott (not of DunderMiflin) would be proud of your positive comments and approach. Sadly the "blow-ups" gossip and back biting in our snake pit of an office really does not allow for any time outs or escapes.

You are right about the moving on part. Sometimes God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Again -- Thank you 8-)

February 22 2011 at 9:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Search Jobs

In Partnership With

Search Articles

Top Companies Hiring

July 27 - Aug 3

Looking for work? See what companies added new openings this week.


Check out our new Map Search

Locate your next job using the new AOL Jobs Map Search!

Pin down your next great opportunity today.