Understand and Manage Passive-Aggressive Employees

The workplace is an environment of tasks and transactions; of projects and processes; of grind and goings on. But deep beneath the surface lurks a silent enemy-one who does not discriminate and who strikes over time, with its victim unaware until it's too late. We're not referring to a great white shark, Freddy Krueger or the tax man. We're talking about the passive-aggressive employee, whose poker face and quiet torment can take a real toll on organizational productivity, interpersonal perception and workforce equilibrium.

What is Passive-Aggressive?

Individuals who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior tend to express hostile and antagonistic feelings in non-aggressive ways. The passive-aggressive employee subtly exhibits behaviors that appear on the surface to be passive, but in reality are directed and purposeful, and intended to control, injure or assign negative third-party perception, while avoiding real responsibility. These behaviors present unprovoked, offensive action toward another person in the workplace. Most often, this type of behavior is exhibited from an employee and directed toward his boss. Other times, it may be one employee acting in a passive-aggressive manner toward a co-worker or even a particular group or department. In any case, passive-aggressive behavior can cause problems in the workplace on both a personal and organizational level.

What Does Passive-Aggressive Look Like?

A definition of the passive-aggressive employee is only one expression of the varied forms they take. As with anything human, our diverse nature guides our actions-both positive and negative. The passive-aggressive employee does not necessarily have a specific "look," rather he is identified through the actions or behaviors that are employed in the course of daily interpersonal communication and work. In that vein, these employees can be categorized into various types.

  • The Backstage Bellyache-This person can't seem to get through the day without complaining or commenting on the boss' deficiencies...to everyone except the boss. When given a task, rattling off not being appreciated for the work to be performed, unhappiness with the type or nature of the duty at hand, and ill-directed contempt for the manner in which it is delegated are subtly verbalized. To the boss, the individual displays signs of agreeable compliance, but a passive undertone of contempt exists.
  • The Perplexed Pretender-When asked to assume responsibility for the completion of a job, this person feigns misunderstanding in an attempt to both perform less and provoke more. The individual does not come out and refuse to do the work, nor does he get upset with the assignment; rather, this person presents a phony conception of apologetic bewilderment, causing the boss to become bothered and even angry.
  • The Counter Compliant-In being asked to perform a duty, complete a function or even do a favor, this person purposefully falls just short of compliance, but only to a point that complaining about it would seem trivial. The individual silently and with quiet contempt takes action toward complying with a request, but in the process, purposefully forces the other party to "come the last 10 percent." Since work was done and energy exerted, the individual would reasonably be seen as having made an effort to comply, and complaining about the minimal remaining effort to go that last yard would make the task-giver seem insatiable and demanding.
  • The Intentional Inefficient-Knowing that ultimate responsibility for productivity, volume and efficiency falls squarely upon the shoulders of another, this person takes passive steps to diminish the ends. Claiming to have forgotten something, redirecting fault to others, subtly expressing disdain and making mistakes are strategies this person employs in an effort to cast negative light on another or put the person responsible for the results in a bad situation. This person spins it as if the overall failure to achieve success or reach completion is due to the difficult or arduous nature of the task, and someone else is to blame; therefore, responsibility for that failure is shifted to the person whom the passive-aggressive behavior is intended to injure.
  • The Convenient Contributor-This person does as little as possible while the boss is around. As soon as the boss is unavailable, he dreams up a task that needs accomplishing. This task of course requires approval, and since the boss is not available it is necessary to go over his head to the next-line of management for action approval. Would the boss have been around, he could have dealt with the task.  The boss may complain about the lacking performance of this individual, but to upper management, this person takes initiative and ownership for getting the job done.  The boss' claims lose credibility and make him seem unappreciative that the employee took care of business while he was out.
  • The Well-Timed White Knight-Waiting for the right time to step in and save the day, this person waits until the boss is unavailable or out of the office to create a crisis. He then steps in and goes over the boss' head, seeking out his manager/director in order to gain approval for necessary actions that must be taken. Luckily, at least this person could be counted on to do what needs to be done in order to take care of the work crisis at hand while the boss is out. The boss seems partially unreliable, and this person looks like a hero.
  • The Prolonged Performer-No task is too big or too small, and ultimate completion of a task is not an issue; however, the time it takes to complete becomes the real problem. This person is willing and able to complete an assignment and appears to comply with the request, all the while taking so long to reach completion that the task-giver is sorry he ever gave the assignment in the first place, as it has incited more aggravation and potentially caused more grief than good.
  • The Nodding Nuisance-Though miniature problems may arise and comments in private may be made, this person keeps silent in public and operates in a state of agreeable dormancy, not making waves and not voicing complaint or disdain where others may hear. If the boss complains to others about a supposed bad attitude, he is seen as making assumptions and potentially judging with out fact, as in the public eye the person seems to do a fine job and never raise issue over assignments. To others in the workplace, he simply looks like a quiet contributor who never has anything bad to say, and the boss is left looking like the bad guy for drumming up a something seemingly out of nothing.

So How Do I Handle the Passive-Aggressive?

The passive-aggressive employee is a tricky breed and is not always easy to spot. Careful thought must go into how this type of person is dealt with on the job. Remember, this person's strategy is to direct some level of aggression onto another individual, often times his boss, but do so in a passive manner as to look innocent in the process, thereby making the other person look bad or get frustrated. In dealing with this type of personality in the workplace, it is imperative to employ well-thought out, preemptive counter-strategies to nip passive-aggressive behavior in the bud before its intent can be realized.

Sometimes passive-aggressive behavior is unconscious, but by in large, it is exhibited knowingly and with intent. When confronted regarding a problem with behavior, employees who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior will act as though they are completely unaware of the frustration or hostility their actions create and will typically seem surprised to hear that there is an issue at all. Note that these seemingly unaware reactions are only part of the overall passive-aggressive behavior.

The key to effectively dealing with the passive-aggressive employee lies in three ordered stages:  

  1. Type Identification
  2. Counter Strategy  
  3. Emotional Intelligence

The first step to take in dealing with any issue with an employee's performance or attitude problem is to identify what you are dealing with. By first identifying the type of passive-aggressive employee you are dealing with, you can proactively determine what can be done to counter the undesired behavior.

At a restaurant, you don't know what to order unless you first see the menu. Without taking time to determine who you are dealing with, you just may order up the wrong counter strategy and make things worse.

Once you know who you are dealing with, look to identify potential passive-aggressive behavior. Consider past behavior, and anticipate what you can do to prevent future repeated passive-aggression from having a negative effect. For instance, in dealing with "The Intentional Inefficient," you might portray an assignment from the start as being very simple. This way, if the person completes the task successfully it was as expected, but making subtle mistakes or intentionally working in an inefficient manner would only seem like the person could not handle such a simple assignment. This strategy also often works with "The Prolonged Performer."

In the case of dealing with "The Perplexed Pretender," it is often a good idea to give smaller chunks of instruction and require written (often e-mail) summarization of expected steps or processes. This way, there is direct two-way communication in writing that instructions were clear, and the chunked approach to giving instruction provides little room for complaining about the level of (supposed) difficulty. It also provides a manager with written documentation of a potential deficiency in either the ability or willingness of an employee to do the job.

With "The Well-Timed White Knight," giving broad or general authority, in advance, for the individual to take care of emergencies or seek approval/guidance from another superior in your temporary absence can block the person's plans to pounce when your guard is down. Also, it could work to transfer ownership to the individual, thus encouraging more appropriate behavior.

Finally, individuals who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior are not simply bad eggs with nothing better to do than make other people look bad. Often, there is a root cause for the need to take such action against another person. Most likely, there is an emotional catalyst somewhere in the background that is igniting passive-aggressive actions. Without taking time to identify what this may be and how it can be fixed, all the preemptive strategies in the world won't last forever.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to recognize and manage feelings in one's self and in others, so they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to manage, motivate, lead and work together smoothly toward common goals and organizational success. By first performing a self-assessment of your own emotional intelligence, either informally or formally through such metrics as the ECI (Emotional Competence Inventory), and then looking outward to recognize feelings someone else may have and be externalizing through passive-aggression, you can often repair what is broken and end the passive-aggressive behaviors that are causing a negative work atmosphere.


Though often silently pervasive, employees who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior can cause real problems in the workplace. While not always easy to identify, and often doubly difficult to curb, dealing with such passive negative expressions is possible through a deliberate and pre-thought out approach, non-aggressive counter actions, conscious and prudent resolve...and with a little patience.


Construction Business Owner, April 2007