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Why Passive-Aggressive Behavior Thrives in the Workplace

Compliant defiance of office standards and hostile cooperation among workers.

ESB Basic/Shutterstock
Source: ESB Basic/Shutterstock

From hushed gossip at the water cooler to avoidance of direct conflict by way of emailed accusations, today’s workplace offers countless opportunities for passive-aggressive behavior. Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden anger (Long, Long, & Whitson, 2016). The passive-aggressive employee uses a variety of behaviors to get back at others, often without 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 for sabotage of productivity at worst. In this post, I’ll identify some common red flags of passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace, as well as eight specific reasons why hidden anger is the perfect office crime.

Red Flags of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

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

  • Avoiding responsibility for tasks.
  • Doing less when asked for more.
  • Missing deadlines.
  • Withholding important information.
  • Going over a boss’s head to make him or her appear incompetent or unresponsive.
  • Leaving notes or using e-mail to avoid face-to-face confrontation.
  • Ignoring the notes or e-mails left by others.
  • Complaining about office policies and procedures.
  • Arriving late.
  • Extending their lunch break.
  • Using sick days unnecessarily.
  • “Forgetting” or “misplacing” important documents.
  • Resisting suggestions for change or improvement.
  • Procrastinating.
  • Questioning co-workers in public settings, such as during meetings or presentations.

Confronting the behaviors of a passive-aggressive employee can be as easy as nailing Jell-O to a wall; count on the likelihood that a passive-aggressive individual will have a plausible explanation to justify any and all of the behaviors on the list.

8 Traits That Make the Office a Perfect Place for Passive-Aggressive Behavior

1. People spend a lot of time at work.

Other than the home — where most people spend between six and ten hours of their time, mostly 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 form wherever a person spends a great deal of time.

Whether in the course of business or over friendly lunches, enduring relationships develop in most workplaces. And within relationships, passive-aggression can occur.

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

Yet, even in a formal business environment, emotions stir over any number of things — workload, “the big deal,” promotions, respect, 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 may feel that his or her boss has slighted her. But in most workplaces, an individual does not have the freedom to tell their boss how they really feel without risking their career. It is also true that a boss, frustrated by the quality of an employee's work, would violate both written and unwritten policies by giving that employee completely candid feedback. In the workplace, employees must choose their words with extreme care — making it an ideal environment for passive aggression.

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

For a child whose primary caregiver was all-powerful and gave the child no recourse for the direct expression of anger, a hierarchical workplace may trigger his or her 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 their childhood.

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

Electronic communication has completely altered the way business people interact — and the ways in which they transmit meaning. When it is possible to establish and maintain big deals, major decisions, and important working relationships without traditional personal contact, efficiency is won, but important messages may be lost — or hidden.

7. The teamwork dynamic common in 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 or her responsibility is not readily apparent or tenaciously justifiable.

8. It is often difficult to fire employees.

Human resources policies, designed with the best intentions — protecting workers — can make it especially challenging to terminate a passive-aggressive employee. Picture the intentionally inefficient worker who meets all minimum standards. If confronted, he puts up a good, victim-inspired fight. He claims the boss just doesn’t like him and is harassing his completely acceptable performance. Picture the disgruntled supervisee who makes it a point to go over her boss’s head while the boss is away on a business trip, or the spiteful co-worker 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 such behaviors and is expert in casting himself in the role of victim to any angry accuser.

Signe Whitson is the Chief Operating Officer of the LSCI Institute. For more information on how to confront and change passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace, check out The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriages & Close Relationships, in the Workplace and Online.


Long, J., Long, N., and Whitson, S. (2016). The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriages & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.

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