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by Rob Porter | May 03, 2024


Throughout your career, you’ll encounter many different types of personalities in the workplace. In most cases you’ll develop positive working relationships with your coworkers, but you may also encounter certain individuals who are difficult to work with. Today we’re going to talk about passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace, along with strategies you can use to overcome it.

Warning Signs

In certain cases, it can be quite difficult to tell whether a person is being passive-aggressive. When it comes to behavior be on the lookout for patterns, as people can act out of character if they’re having a bad day or for any number of other reasons. In other words, anyone can seem like they’re exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviors given the right set of circumstances, so it’s important to use discernment before you decide how you want to approach the problem. Here are some common signs of passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace:

  • Giving backhanded compliments or sarcastic remarks
  • Withholding information or resources that are needed for a project
  • Procrastinating on tasks and missing deadlines intentionally
  • Expressing resentment through subtle facial expressions or body language
  • Engaging in gossip or spreading rumors behind someone’s back
  • Ignoring emails, messages, or requests from certain colleagues
  • Making snide remarks during meetings or team discussions
  • Exhibiting a negative attitude or mood without communicating the underlying issue
  • Sabotaging the work of others indirectly or subtly undermining their efforts
  • Using excessive politeness or over-apologizing as a way to express anger or frustration

Stand Your Ground

Resist the urge to respond to passive-aggressive behavior with more passive aggression or other forms of directly aggressive behavior. This will only send a message to the offender that their behavior is an effective method of getting what they want, and the cycle will continue. When left unchecked, passive-aggressive behavior can lead to low morale, interpersonal conflicts, and all kinds of other problems in the workplace.

Be Direct

The best way to approach the problem is by being direct with the person in question. Rather than calling them out in a group setting, find a suitable time to speak with them privately. This may help ease tension or make the person in question feel more comfortable. A simple “Is everything okay?” could work wonders depending on the person, and you may learn that they’re having issues outside of work that are affecting their behavior and performance.

You may also approach the person in question with concrete examples of the behavior you’ve witnessed. If you decide to go this route it’s important that you don’t use any accusatory language such as “You wasted a lot of time today” or “You’re being difficult,” as this will only exacerbate the problem. Instead, calmly explain how their behavior made you feel by saying something along the lines of “Earlier today it felt like you were procrastinating a little. Is there anything I can do to help?” Don’t make the mistake of labeling their behavior as passive-aggressive when speaking with the person in question, as this will cause them to get defensive. Most often, communicating with the person will help the situation.

Take Action

If you’re communicating with the person in question but nothing seems to be improving, it’s time to take a different approach. First, you could try distancing yourself from the person. If you’re working on a group project and they’re not pulling their weight, don’t do their work for them. When the project is almost finished, you could speak to your boss and explain that while the project is almost complete, the team is still waiting on one last component. In this particular scenario you don’t want to come off as a tattletale, so the key here is being somewhat vague and allowing your boss to fill in the blanks.

In the worst cases when projects are failing, harmful gossip is spreading, and morale is low, it might be time to take a more direct approach with management. This can be tricky, and depending on your boss’ personality they may see you in a bad light if you start complaining about another employee. In order to do this effectively you’ll need clear examples of the problem, and you’ll want to come off as concerned rather than frustrated or angry. You might say something like “We’re working on [Name of Project] and we’re all pretty concerned about [Name of Coworker]’s contributions. We may not hit our deadline.”

When dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker, don’t take it personally. In nearly all cases the person in question is working towards a goal, which could be as simple as getting out of doing any work. While it’s best to avoid talking to your coworkers about the situation, you could turn to a trusted friend or family member for guidance or a fresh perspective. Perhaps most importantly, don’t take your work home—the worst thing you could do is let someone else’s poor behavior at work affect your personal life.