Passive Aggressive Behavior in the Office: How to Spot It, How to Stop It

Toy employee

You’re having a conversation at work. It sounds normal enough, but something doesn’t feel right, and you can’t put your finger on what. Your colleague is telling you something without telling you something. They’re being passive aggressive.

Passive aggression in the workplace can divert focus from the organization’s objectives and negatively impact office morale. Here are a few reasons why passive aggressive behavior in the workplace occurs, potential causes, and how it can be addressed.

Why passive aggressive behavior can spread at work

Much of what goes on at work triggers strong feelings. Promotions, raises, and public recognition of achievements often spark complex emotions surrounding personal or professional goals, self-worth, and self-esteem.

To complicate matters, professional communication is nuanced; there is no safe outlet for some feelings. Honest responses or candid evaluations may at times feel inappropriate and can even violate workplace policies. As a result, words and actions are chosen with extreme care–and with the gilded professional speak many have to abide by, indirect solutions to problems flourish.

Why passive aggressive behavior is harmful and how to identify it

Passive aggression can disrupt a productive environment and if left unchecked, can lead to an influx of harmful, extreme, and entirely unprofessional behaviors such as gossip, sabotage, and retaliation. If you’ve encountered the following behaviors from colleagues at work, you’ve dealt with passive aggressive behavior:

  • Ignoring proper channels in the workplace to deal with issues and instead, utilizing dysfunctional methods (gossip, spreading rumors, constant complaining)
  • Calling out of work on the day of a presentation–sabotaging collaborative efforts
  • Relying on continual, plausible excuses to avoid taking on certain responsibilities
  • Other telltale signs of passive aggressive behavior include:
    • Sarcasm
    • Silent treatment
    • Withholding of praise
    • Criticism
    • Sabotage
    • Consistent unreliability: being late and non-responsive

How to deal with other people’s passive aggression

To deal with this kind of behavior, it’s helpful to recognize it for what it is, and where it may be coming from. People who feel marginalized, defenseless, and powerless at work will sometimes engage in this behavior because they:

  • feel they are victims in negative circumstances that are beyond their control,
  • aren’t ready or willing to create positive change in their lives,
  • or have strong, deep-rooted fears direct of conflict and confrontation.

Try not to let this behavior get under your skin and utilize positive tactics to bring change to your work culture. If it’s coming from a co-worker or subordinate, here are a few hints on how to address the issue:

  • Take the time to confront the employee or coworker who is being passive aggressive.
  • Try to avoid holding this conversation in an area of the office that can be overheard by your colleagues.
  • Calmly identify their behavior–be specific, and avoid using general language such as “you always call in sick and miss the staff meeting,” or “you never respond to emails.”
  • Reference one or more occasion where their behavior has derailed a project and discuss why it’s an ongoing problem.
  • Try to address the root of their behavior by asking about their motivations in a friendly but firm way, and try to find out why they are feeling hostile or angry.
  • Even if you are the cause of their hostility, rise above their anger and try to remove your own emotions from the conversation, making every attempt to create a safe space for them to talk about their issues and resolve the matter.
  • Recommend better future solutions to their issues such as discussing the problem with the parties involved, or reaching out to human resources.

After this confrontation, here’s how you can try to be a consistent role model for open and honest communication in your interactions at work:

  • Make a point of listening and responding to feedback and avoid punishing people who publicly disagree with you.
  • Allow for and encourage one-on-one conversations to receive feedback and clarify expectations.
  • Pay close attention to what’s not being said in your workspace. Evaluate and reevaluate your work culture–are there hostilities or resentments festering in the silence?

If it’s coming from a manager, you may have to utilize some managing up tactics to address the communication or behavior issue.

How to be more direct

If you’re reading this and thinking some of these behaviors sound too familiar, it’s okay. To address your own possible issues with passive aggressive behavior, determine where your hostility is coming from, and recognize that this form of expression likely won’t solve your problems. Here are a few ways to move forward:

  • Be mindful and remain aware of your feelings. While work is supposed to be a bit more of a stoic environment, there are major triggers in countless professional situations. Acknowledge where your behavior is coming from, and if you are having strong feelings, are you also disconnecting your actions from your emotions?
  • Find a healthier voice at work by utilizing assertive communication–a nonreactive and respectful way to interact. This type of communication isn’t just about getting your way–you need to consider the other side, even though you don’t have to agree. Approach this interaction as if you both want to solve a problem.
  • Recognize and confront your fear of conflict, and make attempts to engage in respectful confrontation.


Work relations will always have their challenges and managing those emotions that come along with the ups and downs of your professional life can be rocky. Most offices have human resource departments and other protocols set up to help. Try to utilize these pathways.

Any experience with passive aggressive behavior, or recovering from it yourself? Please leave a comment and let us know, we’d love to hear from you!

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With a background in the performing arts and journalism, Caroline understands the chaotic course of career change. She’s been a reporter, teacher, and co-manager of a yoga resort. Her passions include women’s rights and encouraging girls to study science.
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  1. Pingback: Passive Aggressive Behavior in the Office: How to Spot It, How to Stop It – Recruitology Careers Blog

    • Pat M.
    • August 14, 2017

    I had a co-worker who complained fairly often to me about conditions at work. Guess what? I ended up quitting, because I got tired of hearing about it. Meanwhile, she stayed at her job until most of our co-workers were laid off about 8 months after I left. She was laid off, too, but at least she was able to collect unemployment. I regret my decision to quit, but really the company, at least the local branch of it, was going down the tubes. I just wanted to move on.

      • Caroline Rodriguez
      • September 11, 2017

      I think you should give yourself a pat on the back. While it may not feel 100% awesome, focus on the positives. You were able to remove yourself from a difficult situation (and a difficult colleague) by making some hard choices, good for you. And of course, with hard choices comes some second-guessing and potential regret. I’m sorry you had to deal with that but it seems as if you made the right call and moved on at the right time.

    • S
    • August 31, 2017

    What do you do if your boss is the one being passive aggressive? What are some techniques for “managing up”?

      • Caroline Rodriguez
      • September 11, 2017

      Hi there,

      Oof. Passive aggressive behavior in your supervisor is one of the trickiest to maneuver. You can’t call just them out because they’re your boss.

      I have some hints to deal with communicating with your boss in my managing up article here:

      But, mostly I would say, keep everything on your end respectful, up front, and direct.

      If their passive aggressive behavior is interfering with your ability to complete your job, set up a face-to-face meeting. Talk about specific circumstances when their passive aggression may have negatively impacted your work, and try to utilize assertive communication.

      As I talk about in the article, assertive communication is a nonreactive and respectful way to communicate with the overarching goal of solving the problem, not being “right.” You’re basically trying to craft a game plan together. This might work well for you as you’re reaching out to a supervisor.

      Good luck and let me know how it goes!


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    • Cheryl
    • April 2, 2018

    I am just trying to figure out how to deal with a work situation that may have something to do with me as well. Willing to admit my flaws, I really don’t care for anyone who feels they cannot come to someone with positive and negative comment rather states one is “just unapproachable” when in reality they are the ones that lack tact to approach others. Any books on this would be very helpful.

    • Ariel
    • August 24, 2018

    How do you face the problem head on, when your supervisors refuses to tell you who is making the constant complaints about you? I just had a meeting with my supervisor and director where claims and accusations were told to me but I wasn’t allowed to know who was making these claims. I am very passionate and I refuse to apologize for who I am, and I know there are times my passion carries me away and I am working on waiting and not interrupting anyone etc when I get passionate. However, I get the feeling these claims are coming more as a “pay back” because I didn’t support a certain co-worker’s idea and was very forward with them about my hesitations and concerns. I am willing to own my mistakes but now I am being pulled into their office behind closed doors being told about these accusations, which I feel just fuels the accuser. I am super frustrated and feel it maybe time for a change of environment.

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