Every workplace has its own set of unique characters—if you’re lucky, you might find lifelong friends, or at least someone to run out for coffee with, but sometimes you’ll wind up working next to toxic coworkers that will indirectly bring down your mindset and maybe even get you into trouble in the long run.
Dealing with toxic coworkers in your workplace? While it can be tempting to give into the gossip or spiral of negativity that toxic coworkers thrive on—it’s best to disengage whenever possible.
Below, we’ve rounded up a handful of common trap questions to look out for from toxic and negative colleagues—these range from gossip-based prompts to sneaky ways to get you to admitting to something they can use against you later.
Do yourself a favor and steer clear of the following whenever possible.
Asking if you can keep a secret
A major sign of a toxic attitude in the workplace is when a coworker tells you extremely personal information about someone in the company’s private life, then urges you to “keep it a secret.” This is how rumors and in more extreme cases, blackmail start forming.
“Unless they share information that directly impacts your safety or the safety of another, there is no reason to engage in charged conversations about other employees’ private lives,” says Daivat Dholakia, Director of Operations at Force by Mojo. “However, toxic employees will often make it a point to use this information as currency in daily office interactions.
According to Dholakia, the best way to deal with it is to shut the conversation down as quickly as possible. “Look disinterested or busy and avoid passing your own judgment on the situation. If you don’t give them a reaction, they’ll eventually stop sharing with you.”
“Can you believe this?” or “Don’t you think they’re awful?”
Toxic coworkers will try to drag you into negativity by inviting you to cast blame on or issue negative opinions about coworkers and people in your workplace.
Questions like, “Can you believe Angela gave Terrence that assignment instead of me?” or “Don’t you think Ida is awful at her job?” are bait.
“If you take a toxic coworker’s bait, you’re taking the risk of finding out later that they’ve repeated your words to others and dragged you into the middle of the drama,” explains Ravi Parikh, CEO of RoverPass. “The best way to resist it is to ignore it, deflect it, and avoid engaging with them about anything besides strictly work-related topics.”
Asking what you think of a fellow colleague or boss
“I have seen my fair and unfair share of toxic workplaces, workers and practices and one of the most common trap questions I have seen is fellow workers asking you what you think of your team leader, supervisor or manager,” explains UK-based CEO Brett Downes. “With the intention of them feeding back to them any negative things that come out of your mouth.”
According to Downes, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking they are in the same mindset as you and are just gossiping, which can lead people into saying more than they should. It’s still a breach of trust but it can get you into trouble, passed over for promotion or even shown the door in more extreme cases.
“My advice would be to keep your own counsel, but if you did want to divulge your true feelings, ask them to answer the question first, because if they say anything critical then you have them bang to rights should they share any info you spill,” says Downes.
“Don’t you agree?”
“There are a lot of traps toxic people will try to pull you into, but the one I see most often is a cycle of vindication,” explains Adam Chase, President at Music Minds. “Whatever they’re currently being negative about, they’ll try to pull you in. They’ll appeal to your emotions, to your sense of right and wrong, sometimes even to logic and reason–whatever it takes to get you seeing things their way.”
When you reinforce their views by agreeing with them, though, you’ve essentially just blasted oxygen into a grease fire. Everything gets ten times worse and they’ll feel like you’re a safe person to go to in the future for similar rants.
“If you find yourself being baited by someone in this way, don’t engage or answer their questions,” says Chase. “It’s easier said than done, but remind yourself that the mild satisfaction you may get from trash-talking a manager or coworker is not worth dealing with a toxic person.”
Anything related to politics
Trap questions and conversations can include conversations about workplace dynamics, team members’ personalities and work products, but they can also lean into politics. While talking politics can be productive and engaging outside of the workplace, employees should try their hardest to steer clear of conversations related to these topics in the office.
“It is useful for employees to have a standard response prepared and ready to use when toxic coworkers try to engage them in behavior that makes the other employee uncomfortable,” says Kia Roberts, Principal and Founder of Triangle Investigations.
It doesn’t have to be a long and winding response, either. For example, the response, “I’d really rather not talk about politics at work,” is firm and shuts down a potentially toxic conversation.
“Employees should be thoughtful and intentional about what kind of conversations they really don’t want to engage in while at work,” adds Roberts.