Passive Aggression at Work: The Perfect Office Crime

5 ways that hidden hostility can derail the workplace.

Posted Feb 02, 2018

An employee's resume reads something like this:

Work History

  • Avoiding responsibility for tasks
  • Doing less when asked for more
  • Missing deadlines
  • Withholding information

Professional Activities

  • Using sick days during major team projects to disrupt group productivity
  • Resisting suggestions for change or improvement
  • Bypassing direct supervisor by emailing department head with complaints
  • Leaving Post-It notes to angrily tell others to clean up their mess
  • Using e-mail to avoid face-to-face communication

Special Qualifications

  • “Forgetting” and “misplacing” important documents
  • Embarrassing co-workers during meetings and presentations
  • Following the letter of the law but violating its spirit completely
  • Insisting “That’s not my job.”
  • Consistently behaving this way across most workplace situations

Is there someone in your office who flaunts these passive aggressive credentials? 

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2017). When exhibited in the workplace, passive-aggressive behaviors impact everything from department morale to organizational productivity. Although a passive aggressive employee can have a major impact on a company, their sabotage is carried out through subtle acts of insubordination, undermining, and resistance that are characteristically hard to pin down. It is essential that employers be able to readily recognize the warning signs of passive aggression in the workplace and respond to it effectively in order to prevent their workplaces from being the victim of this office crime. 

If you think you may be dealing with a passive aggressive employee or co-worker, read on to readily recognize five main categories of this destructive behavior:

Category 1: 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.

Category 2: Intentional Inefficiency

The passive aggressive worker feels it is more important to express her covert hostility than to maintain her appearance of professional competence. She uses intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way:

     Tina felt snubbed when passed over for a promotion. She decided to go about her job in a new way; the quantity of her output did not change, but her work became marred with missed details, important omissions, and critical errors.  Though Tina never missed a deadline and took on every requested assignment, the quality of her work had a way of creating embarrassing moments for unsuspecting others who relied on her misinformation.

To protect your office from this kind of 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.

Category 3: 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.”

Category 4: Hidden but Conscious Revenge

In contrast to the inaction that marks the previous tactic, some workers use covert actions to get back at others with whom they are angry. The passive aggressive employee chooses not to confront someone directly, but rather gets revenge through such hidden tactics as spreading gossip that maligns a person’s reputation or downloading a virus that renders a person’s laptop useless.

Category 5: Self-Depreciation

The passive aggressive employee operating at this level is willing to sacrifice his own professional reputation and advancement in order to get back at a specific colleague or at the organization itself. While less common than the other behaviors that have been noted so far, acts of self-depreciation often have an outsized negative influence on a company. For example, a passive-aggressive financial officer with a personal grudge against the company’s CEO can meddle with finances in such a way that puts their own job in jeopardy, but more globally sets the organization up for a very public, very embarrassing failure.

References

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