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Have you ever received an email from a colleague that, on the surface, appears neutral or friendly, yet something about it doesn’t sit right with you?

You may be dealing with a passive aggressive coworker. Sometimes team members choose to voice their frustrations or anger in an indirect way. You may be picking up on hidden subtext in their emails or interactions with you.

It is incredibly frustrating to be “on guard” all the time at work in order to decode your team member’s hidden intentions.

When left unaddressed, passive aggressive behavior can disrupt team dynamics and cause rifts within the organization.

Whether you are dealing with a passive aggressive coworker or employee, we have a few ways to deal with passive aggressive behavior at work in an effective manner.

Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Work

Passive aggressive behavior at work can occur when an employee or colleague feels angry or slighted and doesn’t know a way of expressing anger in a healthy way. Instead, they choose to harbor negative feelings and express them indirectly.

passive aggressive behavior

Here are a few examples of passive aggressive behavior at work:

Scenario 1:

Because of Carly’s work on securing a high-profile client, she received a promotion. Ben, Carly’s colleague, feels as though he didn’t get enough credit for all of the work that he did this year.

Instead of bringing up these feelings with his manager, Ben chooses to make sarcastic comments toward Carly during meetings. When she tries to call him out on it, he says ‘it’s just a joke.’ Behind her back, Ben also spreads rumors about Carly’s poor work ethic.

Scenario 2:

On a company-wide Zoom call, David announces Paul as employee of the month. Paul has worked overtime to make sure an important project is delivered on-time and within the budget.

Sarah has also worked on the project and feels as though she deserved the award. She decides to slack off at work, “forgetting” about meetings and deadlines. When David asks her what’s wrong, she says nothing.

what does passive aggressive behavior look like

Why Passive Aggressive Behavior Can Spread at Work

There’s a saying that one bad apple spoils the bunch. This rings true when it comes to an employee who demonstrates passive aggressive behavior at work.

When an employee starts demonstrating passive aggressive behavior, it can create a toxic work environment for everyone.

Passive Aggressive behavior

Once one person decides not to be a team player anymore, this type of behavior can spread. For example, other employees may decide it’s not worth contributing to the team if others aren’t doing the same. Teamwork relies on all team members committed to the same goal. Even one or two people not being team players can make others feel less motivated and even burnout.

In addition, negative gossip, thinly-veiled comments, and sarcasm can make other employees feel unsafe. They may choose not to voice their opinions in order to avoid backlash.

If you’re a manager, it’s important to stay on top of passive aggressive coworkers because they can actually drive high-performers out of your company. Toxic colleagues can undermine your team dynamic and negatively impact relationships within the team. Identifying and addressing the situation helps maintain a safe environment for all employees.

How to Deal with a Passive Aggressive Coworker

Passive aggressive behavior at work is difficult to address because the perpetrator usually will not own up to their feelings. Due to their own unwillingness to communicate, it leaves everyone in the dark and wondering what’s wrong. It can almost feel like an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Here are some tips on how to deal with a passive aggressive coworker:

  • Examine Your Own Behavior: Sometimes, we may inadvertently contribute to passive aggressive behavior without even realizing it. Take some time to reflect on how you respond to your coworkers when they act passively aggressively.

For example, when they miss a deliverable, do you say ‘it’s fine’ when it’s not? Or when they make a snarky comment, do you simply let it slide? Not speaking up in these situations reinforces the idea that this behavior is okay when it’s not. In order to create change, you have to change the way you respond to your coworkers.

  • Be Direct: Don’t fight fire with fire. In other words, even if your coworker is being passive aggressive, don’t be passive aggressive. This can start a cycle that negatively impacts your team dynamics. Instead, approach the situation assertively. That can mean calling an in-person meeting or bringing up feedback directly with your coworker.
  • Create Boundaries: If there is a way to engage less with your passive aggressive coworker, creating boundaries can help you maintain your mental wellbeing. You can say no to picking up their slack and avoid after-work chats or happy hours with them.
  • Talk to Your Manager: When you’ve approached your coworker about their passive aggressive behavior and nothing’s changed, it may be time to bring it up with your manager or HR. As mentioned before, one toxic coworker can actually lower morale and engagement on the team as a whole.

how to deal with a passive aggressive person

How to Address Passive Aggressive Behavior as a Manager

As a manager, it’s always important to keep a pulse on how your team members are doing. This will allow you to notice and address passive aggressive behavior as soon as possible. Addressing passive aggressive behavior is always a delicate situation.

Here’s how to best approach it.

  1. Understand Your Employee’s Motivations: There are many reasons why someone may act passive aggressively. Understanding your team member’s point of view can help you offer an effective solution.For example, perhaps your team member is feeling under-appreciated or overlooked, and they don’t know of a healthy way to express this. There are many ways you can make your employees feel more appreciated. But in order to implement this solution, you need to get to the heart of the issue.
  2. Don’t Accuse: As we’ve mentioned, passive aggressive behavior must be approached delicately. Otherwise, the perpetrator may deny your accusations or get defensive. Instead of accusing them of not being a team player or being unresponsive, stick to the facts. Bring up specific instances in which they have not met expectations. For example, I noticed you were late to the team meeting this week. Or I’ve noticed that you’ve been turning in your deliverables late. Is there something that needs to be taken off of your plate? Do you need help with your workload? Stress that you are here to help them succeed, not get them into trouble.
  3. Stay Calm: Your feedback will only be heard if it’s delivered in a calm manner. Don’t allow your emotions to get the best of you. Staying calm and making sure you’re not speaking from a place of anger when you address your employee’s behavior is the best route to take.
  4. Recommend Better Solutions: Some team members may act passively aggressively without understanding the repercussions of their behavior. Maybe this is the only way they know how to deal with their emotions. Consider pointing your employees in the right direction, such as coming directly to you or speaking with HR about their grievances. Demonstrate that there are different avenues to have their voice heard and their concerns addressed.
  5. Evaluate the Work Culture: If you notice a lot of passive aggressive behavior on your team, it might be time to take a hard look at the culture in your organization. Are people afraid to be honest? Is passive aggressive behavior the only way for people to express themselves? If this is the case, there must be a larger initiative to build trust and safety in the workplace.

passive aggressive behavior

Learn How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Behavior at Work

If you’re struggling with passive aggressive behavior in the workplace, therapy can help. Contact us for a free consultation today.


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