Confronting The Passive - Aggressive Employee

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

Most people agree that business ethics is important. According to a 2018 survey, more than four out of five employees – 83% – say their companies would make better decisions if their leaders were to follow the “Golden Rule,” i.e., treat others as you would have them treat you. In addition, most employees – 59% – say their organizations would be more successful in taking on their biggest challenges if their leadership had more moral authority. And a whopping 62% of employees believe their colleagues’ performance would improve if managers relied more on their moral authority than on formal power.

But the reality is that most people also tend to pay attention to business ethics only when gross examples of misconduct are reported in the news or social media. Business ethics simply isn’t a hot topic around the proverbial water cooler at work. Unfortunately, far too many people find the topic of business ethics as exciting as watching grass grow.

 Nonetheless, various models of business ethics are a standard part of the academic curriculum taught in most business schools. One of the most often taught ethical frameworks was developed by Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale, and first appeared in their 1988 book, “The Power of Ethical Management.” It consists of the following three simple questions:

  1. Is it legal? Does it comply with government laws and regulations, and your organization’s internal regulations?
  2. Is it fair? Is the decision honest and honorable, or are one or more parties being treated without consideration and respect? Is someone being taking advantage of?
  3. How does it make you feel? Do you have a bad gut feeling about the decision? How would people react if the saw it reported in the news? 

Results from the most recent ECI’s 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey indicate that unethical behavior at work is declining. In 2013, 51% of surveyed employees said that within the last 12 months they observed conduct that either violated organizational standards or the law. However, in 2017, 47% reported observing misconduct; an 8% decrease and close to a historic low. 



Yet, a salient form of workplace misconduct that can seriously damage an organization’s ethical culture is passive aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, it is on the rise in workplaces across the country and is more than just a serious nuisance.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term passive aggressive as “being marked by, or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness).” Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, defines passive aggression as "a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden or covert feelings of anger."


The passive-aggressive employee uses a variety of behaviors to get back at others, often without colleagues ever becoming aware of their anger. The following are some common characteristics of passive-aggressive employees:

  • They are consistently unreliable, late and/or non-responsive.
  • They procrastinate when you ask them to do something
  • They ignore proper channels in the workplace to deal with issues and instead, gossip, spreading rumors, constantly complain
  • They resist suggestions and reject criticism
  • They claim to be the victim
  • They use psychological manipulation by withholding praise and using the “silent treatment”
  • They are envious of other employees’ success
  • They love office drama

According to Idealist Careers, if this behavior is coming from a subordinate or co-worker, the best way to deal with it is to utilize positive tactics. For example, calmly identify the behavior, be specific and avoid using general language such as “you always call in sick and miss the staff meeting,” or “you never respond to email.” In addition, try to avoid holding a conversation in an area of the office that can be overheard by colleagues.

But let’s not forget that employees may also have to deal with passive aggressive supervisors and managers. The following are tell-tale signs of passive aggressive supervisors and managers:  

  • They take full credit from the team’s work thus sabotaging employee advancement and morale
  • They keep complete control over the project (and change their minds every other day about the direction of the project or the process to be followed)
  • They restrict necessary information for workers to do a good job
  • They plan for meetings with employees and show up later or never
  • They override workers’ authority
  • They criticize employees in public, making them feel worthless
  • They give unclear feedback and seldom explain anything
  • They withhold recognition and praise from employees
  • They play new employees against more tenured employees
  • They micro-manage decisions which are in the employees’ power to do

Psychologist Neil Warner, in her book “Closing the Passive Aggressive Defiance Gap,” suggests the following tactics when working with a passive-aggressive supervisor or boss:

  • Reference one or more occasion where their behavior has derailed a project and discuss why it’s an ongoing problem
  • Try to address the root of their behavior by asking about their motivations in a friendly but firm way and try to find out why they are feeling hostile or angry
  • Remove their anger and try to remove emotions from the conversation, making every attempt to create a safe space for them to talk about their issues and resolve the matter
  • Recommend better future solutions to their issues such as discussing the problem with the parties involved or reaching out to human resources

More than Annoying

Passive aggressive behavior is not typically considered a form of unethical conduct, but rather is often viewed as an unfortunate display of irritating and/or annoying behavior. However, it can wreak havoc on work relationships, lead to people being marginalized and taken advantage of by others, interfere with productivity, and break down workplace morale. Worse yet, unproductive expressions of emotions can lead to an influx of harmful, extreme, and entirely unprofessional and unethical behaviors such as gossip, sabotage, and retaliation.

This doesn’t mean most employees don’t go through a passive-aggressive episode every now and then, like failing to attend a meeting or deliver a task on time. In fact, most of employees do.

Moreover, many employees ignore genuine passive-aggressive behavior and pretend that nothing is going on. Sometimes, however, this is not possible, and the aftermath of hostilities or resentments will most likely not go away. As W.G. Wills wrote, “The wounds of the mind fester in silence.”

Working with or for someone who is genuinely passive-aggressive can be very frustrating. Nonetheless, a good ethical approach can greatly aid in identifying and addressing passive-aggressive behavior. Ethical individuals exude respect for co-workers and subordinates by making a point of listening and responding to feedback and avoid punishing people who publicly disagree with them. They clarify expectations and pay close attention to what’s not being said in the workspace.

Confronting passive-aggressive behavior can be as difficult as nailing Jell-O to a wall. Yet, it must be done in order to promote ethical behaviors and enhance workplace morale.