How to deal with a passive aggressive colleague

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Arguing is a form of passive aggressive behaviour. Photo: Getty

It can be obvious when a colleague is annoyed or being hostile, but it isn’t always. Sometimes, it can be far more subtle. Whether it’s the silent treatment or being purposefully left out of a conversation, though, passive aggression in the workplace can be just as upsetting as shouting.

Passive aggressive coworkers are everywhere – and they can be difficult to deal with. Unlike a friend, however, you can’t simply cut a colleague out of your life. Whether you like it or not, you have to see them and work with them every day.

So what should you do?

“Open and honest communication is key to a successful business, therefore individuals who display passive aggressive behaviour can often pose a threat to the harmony of the working environment,” says Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

“As opposed to regular aggression, which can be easily identified, passive aggression is usually much subtler. Nevertheless, it can be equally as detrimental if allowed to continue unchallenged.”

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Passive aggressive behaviours are essentially those that involve acting indirectly aggressive, rather than directly – such as arguing. While most of us know at least one passive aggressive person, it’s a common problem in the workplace. According to a recent survey by the software company Adobe, 25% of us loathe the phrase “not sure if you saw my last email” and the second most hated was “as per my email.” Of all of the nine despised responses, all of them contained passive aggression.

“Passive aggressive behaviour can vary greatly depending on the circumstances, however common examples in the workplace include deliberately excluding colleagues from important emails or business meetings,” Palmer explains. “Simple actions such as purposefully failing to say good morning to a colleague, or refusing to acknowledge good work, may also be indicators of passive aggressive behaviour.

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“Some employers may be inclined to dismiss these actions as minor inconveniences, especially when you consider that the alternative could be a full-blown workplace confrontation,” she adds. “However, passive aggressive behaviour can often create a sense of uneasiness at work, harming morale and overall productivity.”

So what can employers do to put a stop to passive aggressive behaviour? First, it’s important that they stay alert to it, Palmer says, before intervening where necessary.

“Line managers play an important role here and should be encouraged to identify individuals who may be acting out of character,” she adds. “Regular one-to-one meetings allow employers to talk with staff who are displaying passive aggressive behaviour. During these meetings, employers should ask staff to disclose any issues they may be having at work and look to resolve this where necessary.”

Palmer explains that it may be that the employee is unhappy with a specific task they have been assigned, or the conduct of a colleague, and in the case of the latter, further action may be required. “A key part of managing employees is mediating between individuals who may not see eye to eye on a professional level and a ‘clear the air’ discussion may be required in these scenarios,” she says.

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When faced with someone passive aggressive, it’s important not to stoop to their level. It’s only likely to make the situation worse and cause you unnecessary stress. Being the bigger person is only likely to embarrass or irritate the culprit more, too.

And while it’s tempting to let rip towards a passive aggressive colleague or boss, there’s always the risk that it could backfire. Instead, try seeking advice from your HR department – or try speaking to them in a matter-of-fact way about what you can improve on to avoid those little comments and sarcastic remarks.

Likewise, it’s easy to fall back on passive aggression if you’re dissatisfied with someone’s work or attitude, but it’s more productive to speak to them respectfully about how they can do better. They’re also far more likely to respond positively to considerate advice – rather than a snarky email or a cold shoulder.