toxic workplace

How to cope with toxic colleagues - if you must

February 29, 2012: 9:31 AM ET

Constant conflict and hostility is not only unpleasant, it can damage your health. There are ways to stay sane and protect yourself.

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." More

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