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9 Common Phrases of a Passive Aggressive Workplace

Why these sentences may signal hidden hostility in your office

Second to the home, many adults spend more time at work than anyplace else. In an environment where competitive relationships form and a professional atmosphere makes direct emotional expression unacceptable, many office cultures are ripe for passive aggressive behavior.

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. It involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). Do any of these passive aggressive phrases characterize the interactions among colleagues at your workplace?

I’ll Get it to You Tomorrow

Postponing, procrastination, and stalling are all classic passive aggressive tactics at work. The more an employee can verbally agree to a task, but behaviorally delay its completion, the more he can interrupt work flow and frustrate those who rely on him.

I Never Got the Message

Passive aggressive workers are often burdened by temporary hearing loss, convenient loss of sight, and bad memories when it comes to fulfilling workplace responsibilities. Other common sayings that may signal passive aggressive task avoidance may include:

• “I must not have heard you say that”

• “I didn’t see the e-mail”

• “I forgot to put it on your desk”

No One Ever Told Me

As a close relative of the excuse, “I wasn’t trained on how to do that,” “No one told me” is a common phrase of the passive aggressive worker, to justify undone work and incomplete tasks. By claiming ignorance, the covertly hostile worker shirks responsibility onto the shoulders of others.

I Thought You Knew

Passive aggressive workers often commit crimes of omission in the workplace, choosing not to share a piece of information even when they know that doing so could prevent a problem. For example, by claiming, “I thought you knew,” a jealous worker fails to alert his colleague about a mandatory meeting.

You Didn’t Call Back So I Just Checked With Your Boss

Do you have an employee who relishes any opportunity to make others look bad? He might not even be trying to gain recognition for himself—he simply wants to diminish others. By going over someone’s head and innocently claiming, “You didn’t call back, so I just checked with your boss,” the passive aggressive person thwarts a workplace hierarchy and makes his target appear unresponsive and incompetent.

He Just Wants it Done His Way

One way of getting back at others in the workplace is for the passive aggressive employee to fulfill his responsibilities in unacceptable ways. By consistently working below standards and subtly foiling team projects, the passive aggressive employee uses intentional inefficiency to express his hidden anger. When confronted about substandard work, the passive aggressive person plays up his role as victim, claiming a boss has unrealistic expectations.

I Was Sick

When a worker is consistently and suddenly ill on the days that large projects are due or his contribution to a meeting is crucial, a red flag should go up in your mind that passive aggression may be the source of his sickness. While we all get sick from time to time, the passive aggressive employee “plans” sick days around sabotaging his workplace.

That’s Not My Job

The passive aggressive employee may be Johnny-on-the-Spot when it comes to tasks he enjoys, but when assigned a job that he resents or feels is beneath him, he confidently falls back on the rationalization, “that’s not my job” and frustrates others with his letter-of-the-law adherence to the specifications of his job description.

I Misplaced the File

The critical paperwork is missing. The most important file has been erased from the hard drive. One way or another, the passive aggressive employee ensures that essential information is lacking, just when his boss, colleagues, and teammates need it the most.

By the nature of their covert and justifiable acts, passive aggressive employees are skilled workplace saboteurs. As chronic insubordinates and covert troublemakers, they are professionals when it comes to frustrating colleagues and employers. For more information on confronting and changing passive aggressive behavior, please visit The LSCI Institute or