7 Examples of Passive Aggression in the Workplace

Colleagues deal with passive aggression in the workplace.

It’s the email that goes mysteriously missing. The snarky sidebar conversation playing out in chat during a virtual presentation. The unfair and inaccurate online attack disguised as an unbiased customer review. Thanks to the growth of digital communication tools, examples of passive aggression and even downright rude behavior are everyday occurrences in today’s workplace.

None of us wants to be the one who has to deliver bad news to the boss or engage in an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague whose working style clashes with our own. It’s up to employers to help their employees develop the necessary soft skills, such as interpersonal communication and problem-solving, they need to work through on-the-job without resorting to passive aggressive behavior designed to avoid confrontation at the expense of progress and productivity.

What Is Passive Aggression?

According to the Mayo Clinic, it is “a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.” Instead of working through feelings of anger, frustration, or annoyance, for example:

  • A passive aggressive employee might claim that they never received the instructions you gave them on a crucial work assignment.
  • A passive aggressive boss might assign you a task without providing the tools you need to complete it.
  • A passive aggressive colleague might fail to complete the work you need them to do on a project, causing you to miss a crucial deadline.
  • A passive aggressive customer might agree to the details of a transaction to your face and then go around you and contact your manager at a later date claiming that you agreed to terms that are less advantageous to your company.

How to Deal With Passive Aggressive People in the Workplace

Communication, problem-solving, and interpersonal relationship building are essential skills that managers can employ to thwart passive aggression from creeping into the work environment. Unfortunately, a growing number of employers cite these same skills as lacking among their current employees and the candidates they’re vetting for open roles. Leading by example and finding ways to source more candidates who prefer open communication and direct action can help you build a workplace where differences and difficulties are handled in a forthright manner.

Managing a Passive Aggressive Employee

The best way to foster open, transparent communication among your direct reports and discourage subterfuge is to model it yourself. It also helps to underscore what you are doing as you are doing it by using phrases, such as “This isn’t an easy conversation to have, but this year’s bonus program will be more modest than last year’s” or “I wish I didn’t have to deliver this news, but our project deadline has been accelerated.” If you don’t avoid the hard conversations, your team will learn to face them head on as well.

When it comes to chronically passive aggressive employees, you’ll need to decide whether their other skills make them worth retaining. If so, you might

  • Pair them on a project with a more forthright colleague in hopes that they’ll learn to overcome their problem behaviors by example.
  • Provide them with access to professional training opportunities designed to improve their soft skills.
  • Provide them with one-on-one coaching sessions and the incentive to work on this aspect of their workplace behavior as part of their development goals.

Dealing With Passive Aggressive Customers and Clients

The customer is always right—unless they’re trying to game the system in their favor by taking advantage of your employees. Train your employees to recognize and deal with problem customers as efficiently as possible.

One prevalent form of passive aggression involves angling for a discount by claiming that your product or service was faulty. Thwart this behavior by having a protocol in place. You might offer a partial or complete refund on items below a certain dollar amount or refer clients to customer service to fill out a complaint that will be investigated within a certain amount of time. Have a complaint policy in place and encourage your staff to adhere to it in the same way every time so that time is not wasted, and no one can complain about differing service.

Confronting Passive Aggressive Coworkers

Most of the people we work with want to do their part to accomplish their work objectives and, in service of the organization’s goals, they’re happy to help their colleagues out when they get the chance as well. Unfortunately, the workplace is also often the backdrop for passive aggression designed to trip up the competition and elevate one worker at the cost of another. There may have been a time when such behavior was seen as evidence of ambition, but in fact it is toxic and can derail projects and team cohesion.

If you see evidence that a team member is intentionally sabotaging their coworkers’ projects to elevate their own prestige, address it immediately and make clear that it will not be tolerated. If the passive aggressive worker is in a parallel position to you, either within your own department or another, you need to confront them immediately in the way they are likely least comfortable with—face to face. But be aware that your passive aggressive colleague will likely attempt to retaliate by undermining you, so make sure that you have compiled evidence on your interaction and what led up to it and be prepared to share it with your supervisor if necessary.

Satisfying a Passive Aggressive Boss

Passive aggressive supervisors will tend to blame their own shortcomings on their direct reports, instigate unhealthy rivalries between team members, and deliver backhanded compliments without offering constructive suggestions for improvement. If you are working for a boss with these tendencies, stay focused on your role and try to build alliances with managers from other departments who can attest to your work ethic and organizational value. Be prepared to defend your work to higher level management or HR. If you decide to leave the organization, you may want to request an exit interview to express your concerns.

Examples of Passive Aggressive Workplace Situations

Many passive aggressive behaviors stem from fear of failure or confrontation. When managers understand this, it can help them provide the support and security workers need to engage in a more transparent way and abandon the seven unhealthy behaviors outlined below.

1. Procrastination

Failing to tackle tasks as soon as possible is likely the most prevalent form of passive aggression in the workplace. For example, a worker might put off acknowledging an emailed request from a supervisor until after the deadline has passed and then pretend to have never received it.

How to Address It: Employees often procrastinate beginning a daunting work task they think they cannot accomplish. They also might put off starting a project if they do not believe they have sufficient resources or a long enough lead time to do it well. Fostering an environment of open dialogue between employees at all levels can counteract these performance anxiety triggers as can normalizing detailed project management plans that include a series of smaller steps and deadlines rather than one final project deliverable date.

2. Sabotage

When employees don’t buy into the organizational mission or initiatives, they may go a step further than simple procrastination and begin creating obstacles to sabotage work assignments and projects. A fairly benign example might be purposely tanking a small new assignment to avoid being assigned similar work in the future, but this category of behavior can encompass far more serious transgressions.

How to Address It: The dangers of passive aggressive sabotage are critical as this behavior can limit growth and even leave an organization susceptible to breaches of customer privacy and other forms of liability. Prevention is likely your best bet with this behavior. Focus on hiring for value fit by learning what matters most to your top choice candidates—innovation or growth, social impact or customer service—before you hire them. Minor sabotage may be a sign of insecurity that can be addressed with increased additional training, but you may also want to consider dismissal.

3. Undermining

Resentment can prompt employees to undermine a new boss, organizational initiative, management strategy, or product direction through the use of sarcasm, meanspirited jokes and gossip, strategic criticism, complaining, and stirring up discontent among employees. This is often a sign that workers feel insecure about their place in a new paradigm.

How to Address It: To address this type of passive aggression, call it out. Gather your team together and make it clear that you know what has been going on. Work to promote positive discussion that highlights superlative engagement and achievement instead. If a valued employee feels they have been unfairly passed over for a promotion, encourage them to express their feelings and work with them on strategies to attain their professional goals.

4. Blaming

A company culture where employees and managers are hesitant to accept responsibility when errors occur is likely a workplace where people are afraid to make mistakes or take risks. Even worse is a workplace where managers blame their employees when goals aren’t met or where teams turn on one another to avoid accountability.

How to Address It: Foster a culture that values post-project process analysis and encourages employees to embrace mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth.

5. Withholding

In a family or friend dynamic withholding often refers to refraining from expressing affection or offering praise until someone has done what you want. This behavior can occur in the workplace as well, but more frequently workplace withholding takes the form of holding back work to make a boss or coworker look bad.

How to Address it: Increased accountability and frequent one-on-one check-ins can address passive aggressive examples of withholding.

6. Provocation

Rather than have difficult conversations with direct reports or undergo the difficult take of dismissing an employee, some managers will attempt to provoke an employee into quitting.

How to Address it: Have a clear dismissal protocol in place that includes contingencies for various forms of poor performance or malfeasance and be prepared to work with HR to adhere to it as needed.

7. Underperforming

This example of passive aggression in the workplace occurs when a dissatisfied employee attempts to underperform, or “quiet quit,” in an effort to prompt their employer to let them go or give them a less demanding workload.

How to Address it: How you address this behavior depends on how valued the employee is. In some cases, the mission and values that were once shared by an employee and employer may no longer align and it may be time to part ways. On the other hand, a former top performer whose productivity is in free fall may simply be experiencing burnout. Some time off, an opportunity to engage in an exciting professional development opportunity, or a shift in responsibilities may be all it takes to re-engage them in your company’s goals.

Attract Candidates With the People Skills Needed to Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior

Now that you know how to address passive aggression in the workplace, you’re ready to leverage a recruitment strategy designed to fit your hiring needs.