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15 Signs Of Passive Aggressive Behavior In The Workplace

Woman showing signs of passive aggressive behavior


15 Signs Of Passive Aggressive Behavior In The Workplace

Why passive aggressive behavior is the perfect office crime

From whispering gossip at the water cooler to evading personal interaction by way of email, today’s typical workplace offers countless opportunities for passive aggressive communication. Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hiddenanger (Long, Long, & Whitson, 2009).  The passive aggressive employee uses a variety of behaviors to get back at others, without their unsuspecting colleagues ever becoming aware of their anger.

Compliant defiance of workplace standards mixed with hostile cooperation among workers makes for an unpleasant office atmosphere at best and can result in utter sabotage of corporate productivity at worst. In this post, I’ll identify the most common red flags of passive aggressive behavior in the workplace and explain eight reasons why hidden anger is the perfect office crime.

15 Red Flags of Passive Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace:

The passive aggressive employee covertly disrupts office morale and corporate productivity by chronically:

  1. Avoiding responsibility for tasks
  2. Doing less when asked for more
  3. Missing deadlines
  4. Withholding important information
  5. Going over a boss’ head to make him or her appear incompetent or unresponsive
  6. Leaving notes or using e-mail to avoid face-to-face confrontation
  7. Ignoring the notes or e-mails left by others
  8. Complaining about office policies and procedures
  9. Arriving late
  10. Extending the lunch break
  11. Using sick days unnecessarily
  12. “Forgetting” or “misplacing” important documents
  13. Resisting suggestions for change or improvement
  14. Procrastinating
  15. Calling out coworkers in public settings, such as meetings or during presentations

What’s more, the passive aggressive person consistently and persistently has a plausible explanation to justify any (and all!) of the behaviors listed above.  Some compare confronting the behaviors of a passive aggressive employee to nailing Jello to a wall.

8 Traits that Make the Office a Perfect Place for Passive Aggressive Behavior:

Many workplace cultures share components that make them ripe for passive aggression:

1. People spend a lot of their time at work

Second to the home (where most people spend between 6 and 10 hours of their time,sleeping!), many adults spend more time at work than anyplace else. Whether situational or chronic, passive-aggressive behavior is likely to come out wherever a person spends a great deal of time.

2. Relationships tend to form wherever a person spends a great deal of time

Whether in the course of strictly business or over friendly lunches, enduring relationships develop in most workplaces and within relationships, passive aggression occurs.

3. The professional atmosphere of most workplaces makes emotional expression unacceptable

Yet, even in a formal business environment, emotions are aroused over any number of things—workload, work quality, “the big deal,” promotions, respect, talent, intelligence, credibility, and other very personal issues that touch upon an individual’s self-worth. These heartfelt and personal emotions need an outlet.

4. The hierarchy of most workplace cultures makes direct expression of anger seem like insubordination

An employee who feels slighted by her boss does not have the freedom in most workplaces to tell the boss how she really feels, without risking her career.  It is also true that a boss, frustrated by the quality of a employee’s work, would violate both written and unwritten policies by giving the employee completely candid feedback.  In the workplace, words must be chosen with extreme care, thereby making it an ideal environment for passive aggression.

5. The hierarchy of a workplace culture may resemble a dysfunctional home environment

For a child whose primary caregiver was all-powerful and the child had no recourse for the direct expression of anger, a hierarchical workplace may trigger his template for perceiving authority figures as hostile.  Regardless of the accuracy of the perception, the passive aggressive employee will tend to respond as if any authority figure in the workplace is the abusive adult from his childhood.

6. The heavy reliance on electronic communication gives an ideal cover for passive-aggressive exchanges among coworkers

Electronic communications in many companies has completely altered the way in which business people interact—and the ways in which meaning is transmitted. When big deals, major decisions, and important working relationships are established and maintained without traditional personal contact, efficiency is won, but important messages may be lost—or hidden.

7. The teamwork dynamic encouraged by many workplaces can be a great venue for obstructionism and loss of accountability

The covert actions of one passive-aggressive team member can stop the whole show and sabotage entire projects subtly enough that his responsibility is not readily apparent or can be tenaciously justified.

8. It is often difficult to fire employees

Human resources policies, designed with the best intentions of protecting workers, can make it especially challenging to terminate a passive-aggressive employee. Picture the intentionally inefficient employee who litigiously meets all minimum standards. If confronted, he puts up a good, victim- inspired fight, claiming that the boss just doesn’t like him and is harassing his completely acceptable work performance. Picture the disgruntled supervisee who makes it a point to go over her boss’ head while the boss is away on a business trip, or the spiteful coworker who “accidentally” demotes a colleague in the cc: line of a memo as a way of publicly slighting her. The passive-aggressive employee is always armed with a plausible explanation for any of these behaviors and is expert in casting himself in the role of victim to his outwardly angry accuser.

Is your work environment characterized by any of the passive aggressive components listed above?  How does passive aggressive behavior in your workplace impact your ability to accomplish tasks and achieve goals?  What effect does passive aggression have on staff morale?

For more information on how to confront and change passive aggressive behavior in the workplace, please check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, or visit

[Signe Whitson]

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Ages 5-11 to Cope with Bullying, How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens and The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. She is the Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute, a nationally recognized, professional training and certification program for turning crisis situations into learning opportunities for children and youth with chronic patterns of self-defeating behaviors. Please visit for more information on LSCI and to schedule training in your area. Signe presents customized professional and parent training workshops nationwide on topics related to girl bullying, anger in children, changing passive aggressive behavior, crisis intervention, and child and adolescent mental health.

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