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Checking Passive Aggression

Refuse to be a victim of such behavior.

0610cover.gifEveryone has a funny story about the egregious passive-aggressive actions of a mother-in-law, spouse or friend. While irritating, the behavior usually isn’t costly. In many workplace settings, though, passive-aggressive employees can sabotage deadlines, morale and productivity.It is critical for managers to recognize passive aggression before it affects efficiency.

Recognizing Passive Aggression

Passive-aggressive people usually lack assertiveness and are not direct with supervisors about their needs. They fail to ask questions about what is expected of them and may become anxious under pressure.

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden anger. In the workplace, passive-aggressive behavior can manifest itself in one or more of the following ways:

Temporary compliance. The passive-aggressive employee often feels underappreciated and expresses his underlying anger through temporary compliance. Though he verbally agrees to do a task, he delays completion by procrastinating, forgetting deadlines, misplacing documents or arriving late. For the passive-aggressive worker who feels under-acknowledged, temporary compliance is satisfying.

Intentional inefficiency. The passive-aggressive worker finds it more important to express covert hostility than to maintain an appearance of professional competence. She uses intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way.

For example, Margot felt snubbed when she was passed over for a promotion. She decided to go about her job in a new way; the quantity of her work did not change, but it became marred with omissions and errors. Though Margot never missed a deadline and took on every requested assignment, the quality of her products had a way of creating embarrassment for the unsuspecting supervisor caught presenting misinformation.

To protect against saboteurs, look out for employees whose work is consistently at or below minimum standards, who insist "no one told me," and who personalize confrontations by authorities, playing up their roles as victims.

Letting a problem escalate. Teamwork and communication are key to productivity. When a passive-aggressive employee withholds information or deliberately fails to stop a glitch from turning into an irreversible gaffe, operations can halt. Misuse of sick days may help identify a passive-aggressive employee.

For example, Brenda called in sick the day before a deadline, knowing that her presence was critical. She took pleasure in single-handedly foiling completion of the quarterly report and in the resulting companywide affirmation that without her, the department could not progress.

Sabotage is the name of the game for the passive-aggressive employee who justifies her crimes of omission by saying, "I didn’t do anything."

Hidden but conscious revenge. In contrast to the inaction that marks the previous tactic, some employees use covert actions to get revenge on supervisors. The passive-aggressive employee is aware that the person he is angry with has enough power to make his life miserable, so he decides it is not safe to confront him directly. Whether by spreading gossip that maligns the boss’ reputation or misplacing a document, the passive-aggressive employee finds justification in secret revenge.

Tell-Tale Signs

Do any of your employees have these passive-aggressive credentials?

  • Work history:
    • Avoids responsibility for tasks.
    • Performs less when asked for more.
    • Misses deadlines.
    • Withholds information.
  • Professional activities:
    • Leaves notes and uses e-mail to avoid face-to-face communication.
    • Arrives late to work and extends lunch breaks.
    • Uses sick days during major team projects.
    • Resists suggestions for change or improvement.
  • Special qualifications:
    • "Forgets" and "misplaces" important documents.
    • Embarrasses co-workers during meetings and presentations.
    • Justifies behavior with plausible explanations.
  • Consistently behaves this way.

Damaging Behavior

By the nature of their covert acts, passive-aggressive employees are skilled at evading the long arm of workplace law. Unchecked, a compliant rule breaker can have a major effect on productivity and morale. When managers understand the signs and recognize patterns, they can protect themselves and other employees from being unwitting victims of this office crime.

The author is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd edition (Pro-Ed, 2008). She can be reached at


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