The workplace has always been ground zero for being the catalyst of human emotion and connection. It brings people together with a common purpose and intention that everyone will work side by side to reach their goal(s). Sound too good to be true?

Probably because it is.

The place we all go to for forty plus hours a week, huddle around coffee machines and offices and share our deepest and darkest thoughts about our weekends, problems, significant others, bosses and colleagues while working hard (and hopefully smart) to finish a project or reach some timely deadline…so what could possibly go wrong?

Well, pretty much everything.

When it comes to culture within organizations, many companies take considerable measures to ensure cohesive environments where everyone can feel happy, empowered and excited to go to work but unfortunately it doesn’t take much to disrupt the environment. When it comes to human behavior the opportunities are plenty. Passive aggressive behavior can tear both a culture and a person’s spirit apart in a matter of seconds.

“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.”

In researching this topic, I came across a powerful and insightful article by Signe Whitson L.S.W. where she laid out a variety of passive aggressive phrases that can erode workplace culture. Below are seven I found to be both relevant and prevalent while adding my own thoughts on how mitigate it.

Phrases To Watch Out For In The Workplace

  1. I’ll Get it to You Tomorrow. Postponing, 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 they can interrupt work flow and frustrate those who rely on them.
  2. 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” OR “I didn’t see the e-mail” OR “I forgot to put it on your desk”
  3. 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.
  4. 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 their colleague about a mandatory meeting.
  5. You Didn’t Get Back To Me, So I Just Checked With Your Boss. Do you have an employee who relishes any opportunity to make others look bad? They might not even be trying to gain recognition for themselves—they simply want 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 their target appear unresponsive and incompetent.
  6. I Was Sick. When a worker is consistently and suddenly ill on the days that large projects are due or their contribution to a meeting is crucial, a red flag should go up in your mind that passive aggression may be the source of their sickness. While we all get sick from time to time, the passive aggressive employee “plans” sick days around sabotaging their workplace.
  7. That’s Not My Job. The passive aggressive employee may be Johnny-on-the-Spot when it comes to tasks they enjoy, but when assigned a job that they resent or feels is beneath them, they confidently fall back on the rationalization, “that’s not my job” and frustrates others with their letter-of-the-law adherence to the specifications of their job description.

What To Do When Confronted

When faced with an individual who demonstrates any of the above listed behaviors, it’s always best to remain calm and if necessary – walk away. If this happens to be a repeating pattern with the same individual, then consider going to your HR/People Operations department and report the situation as some people simply won’t be approachable. Here are four tips to remember when dealing with passive aggressive colleagues in the workplace:

  • Remain calm, and stay focused on the current moment – resist the temptation to get emotionally triggered, it’s a slippery slope into the past. If you fall the for the bait, you risk empowering their conversation about how they arrived to the current situation and all the evidence they’ve collected as to why they are right (and you are wrong).
  • When confronting someone with passive aggressive tendencies, it’s best to refrain from using the word “you” and instead opt for “I” as the first option will be met with a defensive posture and most likely deaf ears. Focusing on yourself leaves little room for the aggressor to fall back on their victim story.
  • Pick your battles in service of the war. Depending on who this person is that exhibits this poor behavior, use your best judgement before taking any action. When we are emotional, our ability to make sound judgments goes out the window. Find a trusting friend or peer and seek some perspective.
  • Lastly, don’t be afraid to share with this person (especially if this is an ongoing situation) that there are repercussions for acting this way and it can be reported. It can be heard as a threat but consider it more of a warning with a hint of promise. Don’t be combative, be assertive and stand your ground.

What To Watch Out For In People

Spotting passive aggressive behavior isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In fact, people who are typically passive aggressive in nature can be so subtle that the effect of their words or actions may not even be felt until minutes, hours or days later. Knowing what to look out for could save you both time and happiness. Here are some red flags:

  • They constantly look for the upper hand by acting in ways that are both subtle, frustrating and unprofessional. This can show up in terms of making you wait on them, purposely disengaging when you are speaking or finding ways to trip you up in public (or via email).
  • They rarely share what’s really going on with them. You won’t know when they are hurt, upset or having a tough day. Everything is fine, life is fine and all is great. Don’t be fooled. The constant submission of emotion can lend itself to acting out with the intent to bring others down to their level.
  • Inclusion is not a word in their vocabulary. Passive aggressive people relish in excluding others who they feel have wronged them. This can take shape in the form of an invite to go somewhere, credit for a project or just outright being dismissive.
  • Last by definitely not least, their warmth comes with it, a brisk chill. Compliments are accompanied with a question about the significance or validity of the very thing they are complimenting you on. This can leave you wondering why you felt great one moment and confused the next.

Final thoughts: No matter what, pay close attention to how you speak and treat others in the workplace. Notice what triggers your emotional surges and who you are speaking with at that time. Find ways to acknowledge what’s happening but always be responsible in how you handle yourself and the situation. Someone who has spent their entire life being the passive-aggressor knows how to take advantage of others and situations and their toxic behavior will erode the workplace culture if not addressed.

If you think you suffer from passive aggressive behavior. Here’s a free assessment I found online.

The floor is yours: How do you deal with passive aggressive people in the office?