Managing passive aggressive behavior

People exhibit passive aggressive behavior in many ways—for example, muttering during meetings, doing things behind others’ backs, or not adhering to deadlines or commitments. Managing those behaviors can be challenging, as they are often not presented directly to you. If you become aware of a problematic, passive aggressive employee, follow these tips:

  • Bring up the conflict. Express to the employee that you sense he or she may be bothered by a specific task or recent development. Ask for feedback, explaining that you are open to alternate solutions. That could encourage the person to share his or her thoughts with you and get the issue into the open. 
  • Create greater accountability. When some employees are angry about something, they will drag their feet or fail to deliver on assignments to prove a point. Make them accountable to more than you. When you assign work, do so in the company of the people whose work relies on the other person’s completing his or her tasks. 
  • Use consequences. Other employees will sabotage the team, showing up late for meetings or failing to meet a deadline to indirectly express their anger. If the behavior continues even after you have addressed it, explain that you will consider disciplinary action—including termination—if the behavior doesn’t improve. 
  • Take formal action. If you have given all the coaching and support that you can, you may need to terminate the employee. If you have documented well along the way, you will have the paperwork to back up your decision.

— Adapted from “Can You Rehabilitate a Passive Aggressive Employee” Katherine Reynolds Lewis,