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.
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.
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.