Work History • Avoiding responsibility for tasks • Doing less when asked for more • Missing deadlines • Withholding information
Professional Activities • Leaving notes and using e-mail to avoid face-to-face communication • Arriving late to work; extending lunch break • Using sick days during major team projects • Resisting suggestions for change or improvement
Special Qualifications • "Forgetting" and "misplacing" important documents • Embarrassing co-workers during meetings and presentations • Justifying behavior with plausible explanations • Consistently behaving this way across most workplace situations
Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden anger. In many workplace settings, where adults spend the majority of their waking hours and corporate hierarchies inhibit direct expression of feelings, the passive aggressive employee is able to sabotage everything from individual deadlines to department morale to organizational productivity. It is critical that employers be able to recognize passive aggressive behaviors in the workplace before they negatively impact output and efficiency. Do any of your workers exhibit these common tactics of passive aggressive workers?
Temporary Compliance The passive aggressive employee often feels underappreciated and expresses his underlying anger through temporary compliance. Though he verbally agrees to a task, he behaviorally delays its completion, by procrastinating, "forgetting" important deadlines, "misplacing" documents, or arriving late. For the passive aggressive worker who feels under-acknowledged by colleagues and management, acts of temporary compliance are most satisfying.
Intentional Inefficiency The passive aggressive worker feels it is more important to express his covert hostility than to maintain his appearance of professional competence. He uses intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way:
Tom felt snubbed when passed over for a promotion. He decided to go about his job in a new way; the quantity of his output did not change, but his work became marred with missed details, important omissions, and critical errors. Though Tom never missed a deadline and took on every requested assignment, the quality of his final product had a way of creating embarrassing moments for unsuspecting supervisors caught presenting misinformation.
To protect your office from the passive aggressive saboteur, look out for employees whose work is consistently at or below minimum standards, who insists "no one told me," and who personalizes any confrontations from authority, playing up their role as victim.
Letting a Problem Escalate Teamwork and communication are key to productivity in the workplace. When a passive aggressive employee withholds important information or deliberately fails to stop a momentary glitch from turning into an irreversible gaffe, entire operations can be halted or even shut down. The (mis)use of sick days is an area of particular vulnerability in the workplace:
Brenda called in sick the day before a major deadline, knowing that her presence was critical to her department's success. She took great pleasure in single-handedly foiling the quarterly report and in the resulting company-wide affirmation that without her, the department could not succeed.
Sabotage is the name of the game for the passive aggressive employee who justifies her characteristic 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 workers use covert actions to get back at superiors against whom they hold a grudge. The passive aggressive employee is keenly aware that the person with whom he is angry has enough power and authority to make his professional life miserable, so he decides it is not safe to confront him directly. Whether it be through spreading gossip that maligns the boss's reputation or planting a computer virus that shuts down office IT systems for a week, the passive aggressive employee feels justified in taking secret revenge in the workplace.
By the nature of their covert acts, passive aggressive employees are skilled at evading the long arm of the workplace law. Unchecked, a compliant rule-breaker can have a major impact on an organization's productivity and morale. When employers understand the warning signs and quickly recognize passive aggressive patterns, they can protect their workplaces from being the unwitting victim of this ideal office crime.
Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.