How to handle a passive aggressive employee

Following the retirement of a colleague, Angela thoroughly expected the company to name her as the new executive secretary to the organization’s vice president. Instead, the position went to Denise, a fellow administrative assistant with slightly less time at the company. To say Angela was upset is an understatement.

Though lacking any proof, Angela convinced herself that Denise got the position by sucking up to certain influential leaders. She gave Denise the “evil eye” whenever she walked into a room. When Denise asked if something was wrong, Angela typically replied, “Nope, everything is peachy keen.”

At first, Angela’s work friends listened to her remarks about how Denise flirts with clients and how she routinely comes back from lunch five or ten minutes late. Growing tired of the gossip and aware of where the hostility stemmed, one colleague suggested to Angela, “Why don’t you ask human resources for feedback on why you didn’t get the job?”

Angela balked, feeling too scared. Eventually, though, she realized that curt responses to Denise’s emails and not turning in weekly data until the last second to make Denise scramble might be hurting her own career more than her enemy’s. Angela talked to HR — and learned that the company really wanted someone with a bachelor’s degree in the position. Angela only possessed an associate’s degree. She stopped her passive-aggressive acts and started pondering a return to school.

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

Most of us can recognize when someone displays anger in a traditional way. The irritated person yells, uses harsh words or swears, or perhaps even slams a fist down on the desk. His demeanor may become tense — a red face, a clenched jaw and fists, glaring eyes. By just listening and looking, it becomes pretty obvious something is wrong.

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Such standout clues usually do not exist when someone is acting passive-aggressive. Acts are more subtle and harder to interpret. The Mayo Clinic defines passive-aggressive behavior as “a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There’s a disconnect between what a person who exhibits passive-aggressive behavior says and what he or she does.”

So what might a passive-aggressive person do that tips off underlying resentment or hostility?

Some tell-tale signs include:

  • Giving the silent treatment

  • Making sarcastic comments (“Look who decided to show up on time for once.”)

  • Offering backhanded compliments (“That presentation you made went surprisingly well.”)

  • Putting slight jabs in correspondence (“Just a friendly reminder”)

  • Talking behind your back or spreading rumors

  • Withholding information or “forgetting” to mention things

  • Petty stealing (such as office supplies or your yogurt from the fridge)

  • Failing to return your phone calls or text messages

  • Deliberate procrastination

  • Missing deadlines on purpose

  • Making intentional mistakes that affect you or the company

  • Coming up with excuses to not help you

  • Offering curt, one-word responses to questions

  • Mumbling under breath

  • Failing to make eye contact when conversing

  • Saying one thing but clearing not feeling that way based on body language and inflection (such as “Everything is fine,” “Whatever,” or “I’m not upset.”)

  • Lamenting about being underappreciated or put upon (“Looks like I’ll be the last one here at the end of the workday once again.”)

Why are some people passive-aggressive?

A variety of reasons exist as to why someone might favor passive-aggressive behavior over more direct expressions of displeasure. Some lack the confidence and/or communication skills to speak up about what is bothering them and hold a productive conversation. Others may have internalized the message that “good” employees do not make waves. Many may think those around them, especially leaders, will not care about how they feel. They see sneaky measures as a way to gain a bit of power or revenge.

Passive-aggressive tendencies can be a form of “quiet quitting.” This type of passive-aggressive employee does the bare minimum to fulfill his job description — and nothing else. Individuals choose not to go the extra mile as a way of “getting back” for lack of fair pay, respect, or appreciation.

Passive-aggressive behavior is on the rise

Research conducted by the online learning and education company Go1 reveals seven in ten Americans are facing unprecedented levels of passive aggression in the workplace. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed say they witness passive-aggressive behaviors in their work environment at least once a week, and 16% say it occurs every day. Furthermore, roughly half of respondents claim the behaviors have increased since the pre-Covid era.

Why? While in-person passive-aggressive behavior still occurs, modern modes of communication provide additional attractive outlets. Emails, texts, IMs, and chat rooms do not give off the same vibe as face-to-face encounters. Subtle, “sneaky” acts thrive.

Take a passive-aggressive coworker who is angry that a fellow team member has not provided the requested copyright permissions. Instead of stopping by to ask about the hold-up, she writes an email. She starts off with “Per my message sent on January 3, I need . . . .” She ends with “I hope this friendly reminder jogs your memory.” Then, in addition to sending the email to the intended recipient, she copies the boss on it. Not only has the sender expressed her frustration without needing to look the offender in the eye, she receives the bonus of quietly making the person look bad in front of their manager.

Remote work, which increased greatly during the pandemic and years following, makes electronic communication more common than ever. Some experts also believe the rise in passive-aggressive negative behaviors could stem from a lack of non-virtual human interactions. People have “forgotten” how to respectfully interact with one another to address the root causes of problems and resolve them. Instead, they hide behind a tech device.

Dealing with passive-aggressive employees

Interestingly, 68 percent of respondents in the Go1 study admitted to being passive-aggressive themselves. When such behavior dominates company culture, a toxic environment can result. Potential outcomes include:

  • Lack of productivity

  • Less teamwork

  • Increased stress

  • Higher turnover rates

Thus, smart managers take action when they notice signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Let’s take a look at some specific examples of ways to handle and prevent.

Be alert to red flags

Remember that earlier scenario of a passive-aggressive colleague cc-ing the manager on an email with the hope of getting someone in trouble? When you’re the leader on the receiving end, do a bit of investigating. Trouble likely is brewing. Likewise, observe interactions at meetings and around the office. If you witness sarcasm, individuals giving one another the cold shoulder, or other questionable behavior, don’t let it slide.

Talk to the aggressor

If a direct charge is exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior toward you, get to the root cause. Communicate your observations in a private conversation. Say something such as, “I’m getting the feeling you are upset about something even though you keep telling me everything is fine. Do you want to talk about it?” Encourage honesty. You might learn she is angry about not receiving a certain assignment or thinks you display favoritism when enforcing rules. With this new knowledge, you can address issues and figure out how to move forward in the relationship.

Communication also is key when team members behave negatively toward one another. Like Angela’s situation in the opening, misunderstanding or miscommunication may have caused their bad blood. Encourage individuals to professionally express their side and actively listen to one another. Mediate if necessary, not to act as a judge but rather to promote respectful behavior.

Set the right tone for your staff

Are you part of the two-thirds of people who admit to passive-aggressive behavior? Work to eliminate. Favor polite, results-oriented directness. And when confronted with someone else’s passive aggressiveness, avoid answering snark with snark. Break the cycle and show how adults handle conflict in a mature manner, even if this means postponing action until you are calm or in a better mood.

Create a psychologically safe workplace

Employees who feel they are not able to voice their opinions and ideas may find subtle, non-constructive ways to do so. Promote a work environment that values input from everyone. Insist on hearing one another out without interruption or belittlement. When staff members know they can share concerns, it discourages sneakiness or silent sabotage.

Treat people right

Be a courteous leader who respects all. Don’t play favorites. Enforce rules equally. Understand the importance of mental health and work-life balance. Demonstrate appreciation, and show concern for people’s well-being. Support fair pay and equal opportunities. Basically, try not to give employees reason to want to “get back” at you, passive-aggressively or otherwise.

Invest in training

Finally, remember that just like hard skills, soft skills can be learned or improved upon. Make instruction in emotional intelligence and enhanced communication part of professional development plans for everyone. People gain a better understanding of how to handle conflict, read social cues, and monitor their own behavior. This awareness may significantly decrease passive-aggressive behavior.