Canadian Workplaces Deal with Passive Aggression in the Workplace

By Catherine Skrzypinski September 13, 2023
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​Passive-aggressive behavior can hurt company culture and sometimes lead to harassment claims in Canada. This behavior is challenging for HR to investigate and stop.

All team members should practice healthy communication, said Cheryl Cran, founder and CEO of Next Mapping, a future-of-work consultancy in Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.).

Passive-aggressive behavior can manifest in various ways in the workplace, experts say, such as:

  • Not returning an email, text or a direct message in a respectful time frame.
  • Procrastinating from work tasks, ignoring requests or intentionally failing to follow up.
  • Not acknowledging colleagues by giving the silent treatment, dodging eye contact or avoiding confrontation.
  • Excluding colleagues from face-to-face or virtual meetings, coffee breaks, lunch outings and other social events.
  • Missing deadlines, refusing to cooperate or having a negative attitude toward work.
  • Gossiping about colleagues, spreading rumors or using sarcasm.

Impact on Company Culture

Over time, the impact of passive-aggressive behavior could become problematic for a company's corporate culture, explained Clara Matheson, workplace investigator and trainer at Rubin Thomlinson in Toronto.

"Passive-aggressive behavior left unchecked can lead to rivalry, division, communication barriers and may ultimately create a noninclusive workplace where some people are left outside of the circle," said Robyn Gervais, a Vancouver-based lawyer and investigator with Gervais Law Corp. "Passive-aggressive behavior does not speak the language of inclusion."

Diversity and inclusion training will help workers to better know the impact of what they are saying on other people, Cran added.

"If passive-aggressive conduct becomes the norm for dealing with conflict in the workplace, this can contribute to a culture that precludes an overall sense of psychological safety," Matheson said.

Workplace Bullying and Harassment Awareness

Passive-aggressive behavior can be considered a form of bullying and harassment in Canada, especially if it is persistent and targeted toward a specific individual or group, said Christopher Drinovz, an attorney with KSW Lawyers with offices in Abbotsford, Langley and Surrey, B.C.

"Passive-aggressive behavior can create a hostile work environment," he added.

Not all instances of workplace passive-aggressive behavior in Canada are considered bullying and harassment, Matheson said. The wording in human rights legislation differs from province to province.

In Ontario, workplace harassment can include unwelcome and repeated words or actions known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning to a worker or group of workers. But in B.C., a worker is considered bullied and harassed when someone takes an action they knew would cause that worker humiliation or intimidation.

Employers in Canada have a duty to provide a safe and healthy work environment free from harassment and discrimination, Drinovz stated.

"Employers should encourage employees to report any incidents of bullying or harassment, and [they should] have a process in place to investigate and address complaints," he said.

Role of Workplace Investigators

Allegations of passive-aggressive harassment can be challenging for workplace investigators to look into, Matheson noted.

"Workplace investigators should get involved if the behavior is persistent and causing harm to individuals or the organization, and when the human resources professional and/or manager have made attempts to resolve the behavior but have not been successful," Drinovz said.

An investigator will be well trained on detecting passive-aggressive behavior and have an outside presence to make objective observations, findings and recommendations that may be useful, he continued.  

When it comes to passive-aggressive communication online, managers and HR professionals need to take a direct approach, Drinovz recommended. Managers should schedule a virtual or face-to-face meeting to avoid misunderstandings and to encourage honest dialogue. HR should document these meetings.

"HR professionals can assist management by creating a culture of open communication, providing training on conflict resolution, and offering support to employees who may be experiencing passive-aggressive behavior," Drinovz said. "HR can also provide guidance and support to managers who may need to address the behavior directly with the employee in question and help them to develop strategies for addressing the behavior in a constructive and positive way."

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, B.C.

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