How to move on from a toxic professional relationship

We’ve all had a relationship in the past that has turned sour at one point or another. Those relationships can vary. They can be familial, romantic or sometimes professional. What all have in common is their ability to make you feel low about yourself and knock your confidence.

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How to move on from a toxic professional relationship
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We’ve all had a relationship in the past that has turned sour at one point or another. Those relationships can vary. They can be familial, romantic or sometimes professional. What all have in common is their ability to make you feel low about yourself and knock your confidence.

Here, we look at what a toxic professional relationship is. In doing so, we examine the common characteristics that a toxic relationship in the workplace will exhibit. From there, we can address ways you can move on from a toxic relationship in the office so that you move on with your life and career.

What is a toxic professional relationship?

A toxic professional relationship is a relationship between two colleagues that no longer functions constructively or profitably. Connections between two people could be so bad that they are no longer able to work alongside each other to help hit targets or meet deadlines. The result is that either one or both individuals are seriously affected.

Importantly, it is imperative to realise that a toxic workplace relationship can transpire between any two people. The most obvious would be a relationship turned sour between a manager and an employee. However, it can be any other dynamic between two people that work alongside one another in a professional capacity.

Carole Ann Rice from told Age Times: “No one wants to dread going to work each day because the atmosphere has become unhelpful and combative. Sadly this can be a common situation. There are some great tips on navigating a minefield of competitiveness, pettiness and personality clashes which can occur in the workplace.”

Common traits in a toxic relationship in the workplace

The following characteristics are ones that typify a relationship between two colleagues that has soured.


It is commonplace to see bullying be part of the behaviour between two colleagues whose relationship has turned sour. One colleague will try to intimidate the other or coerce them into actions that one is not comfortable with. Those actions will most likely be verbal and on a one to one basis. However, it may be that bullying actions by a colleague are more public and explicit, which can make matters worse.


Dishonesty between two colleagues is likely to be present if their relationship has turned sour. It could be that just one colleague is consistently lying or holding back the truth to the other. Or, it could be that there is deceit on both colleagues’ part. Lies can take the form of purposely misleading a person so that they make mistakes in their job. Or, it may descend into no longer being able to have open and honest conversations with one another about the task in hand.


Disrespect on one side or both is frequent in a toxic professional relationship. Colleagues will either do this publicly or behind closed doors. This can be difficult for any type of dynamic of professional relationship. Be that a manager to a team member or the other way round. Disrespect can also occur between two peer colleagues. Regardless, its manifestation can be harmful to people’s abilities as it can make them question how capable they are at their job.


One characteristic that is common in all toxic relationships, but particularly professional ones is if one person is continually trying to control the other. This can be very hard to cope with in a professional capacity as it will materially impede a person’s ability to grow within their career. A healthy professional relationship should be one that promotes and encourages achievements in the workplace. A toxic one will see a person going out of their way to limit what a person can accomplish.

Ways to move on from a toxic relationship in the workplace

Highlight it

Perhaps the most overlooked step in how to move on from a toxic professional relationship is identifying that it is toxic in the first place. You may be aware that you are very anxious when a particular person is around you in the office or when you have dealings with a specific client. That anxiety may not always be due to the toxicity that has arisen, but if it is stopping you from working effectively, you need to question why.

Talk it through

If once you have highlighted that you are part of a toxic relationship at your work, you realise it is due to dealings you have with a specific person, it can be helpful to talk it through with them. They most likely have realised the same thing and could well be feeling like your professional relationship could be better. Set up a meeting, perhaps with a mediator, and proactively discuss your issue. Accept that you may hear things about yourself that you don’t like to hear. Try not to get defensive. Simply listen to what they have to say and relay your worries too. Try to come up with a constructive plan on how you can both move on.

Get HR involved

Once you have identified a working relationship that has turned bad and you don’t think that talking it through is an option, you can get your HR department involved. They will have a procedure with how to deal with such issues in the office and a company policy that they have to follow. By and large, this will mean that you have to file a grievance against your colleague. There will then be a data collation period where HR asks the two colleagues involved for information, as well as gathering evidence from other employees. From there, the HR department will then work on a course of action with you both.

Talk with a lawyer

You may want to get legal advice on how to deal with a difficult colleague at work. While talking to HR is an excellent way to highlight your worries, HR teams will have to take a company-wide view. Getting personal legal advice means that your lawyer will be looking out only for your best interests. They will be able to tell you what options you have available to you if you find that talking it through with your colleague or with the HR department still leaves you in a toxic professional relationship. Work with your lawyer to help you decide a course of action.

Learn from experience

In anyone’s career, you live, and you learn. Looking back on the descent of your professional relationship into that of a toxic state will help you realise where things started to go wrong. You may learn that there were things that you could have done differently that would have helped the situation, or you may simply realise ways to protect yourself against a situation like that arising in your life ever again. Analyse the relationship as much as you can so that you can accept what happened to help you move on, emotionally and mentally.

Moving on from a toxic professional relationship

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is incredibly hard if there is a toxic professional relationship in your life that is weighing on your mind. The stress and the anxiety that comes from such a dynamic is exhausting as well as all-encompassing. However, have confidence in the fact that you want that dynamic to change. By tackling the issue head-on, you may be in for some difficult conversations, but you will also find that you can take control of your career and your future as a whole again.

Business, life and career coach Karen Perkins told Age Times: "Moving on from a toxic person at work, I wouldn't dignify it with the term relationship. People who bully see you as a victim and move on to the next person so remember - 'I was a target , not a victim' and 'I choose to put this behind me and not let it drag me down.'

"Sometimes coaching or getting support from a trusted work colleague can help you move forward. So if it pops into your head and you feel anxious, be kind to yourself and repeat that mantra.

"You can also rest assured that the bully will probably not think about you again, and move on, a bit like a divorce. So remind yourself - 'I choose not to waste my energy on something I cannot change.' You may also be able to get some counselling sessions with your workplace wellness service and I would recommend this, it's a sign of strength, not weakness."

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