Organizational Wellness

7 Ways to Deal With Passive-Aggressive Coworkers

Feb 26, 2024
Last Updated Feb 26, 2024

It might be a snarky tone or an eye roll when you comment in a meeting. Or maybe somebody avoids the meetings you run. However it manifests, a passive-aggressive coworker can be difficult. 

In HR, you also might help other people navigate a complicated relationship. Taking time to resolve this conflict matters — 95% of workers say their emotional wellness impacts their productivity, so a rude coworker truly does get in the way of a company’s success.

Dive into some of the signs that you might have a passive-aggressive coworker on your hands, and tips for how to handle it. 

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Signs of Passive-Aggressive Coworkers

Passive-aggressive behavior occurs when someone expresses discontent in indirect ways. Instead of having conversations, this individual will mesh their displeasure with their work behaviors. Here are two general signs of this conduct in the workplace.

Sending Mixed Signals

One primary way passive-aggressive behavior can manifest is with mixed signals. That might look like:

  • The tone of voice contradicts the actions
  • Acting nice in person but talking negatively behind their back
  • Giving backhanded compliments
  • Giving the silent treatment but denying that anything is wrong

The coworker will often treat this person well in public and poorly one-on-one, which is why this experience can be confusing. 

Withholding Information or Cooperation

Passive-aggressive behavior can also include: 

  • Showing up late to work to make a point
  • Missing work entirely
  • Procrastinating projects you’ve asked them to help with
  • Attempting to block other people’s efforts
  • Not sharing information for seemingly unrelated reasons

Seven Tips for Handling Passive-Aggressive Coworkers

Having a difficult coworker can be draining. On top of that, it can also be harmful for your company’s work environment. They can create a toxic culture or slow down productivity. 

So what can be done? Here are suggestions to seven ways you manage this situation: 

Don’t Be Passive-Aggressive In Return

It’s tempting to turn around and return the behavior. That might feel satisfying for a minute but can make it worse in the long run. Acting similarly may also show your teammates that being passive-aggressive is an effective way to get what they want

Even when it’s hard, try to avoid rewarding their behavior. 

Assess Why They’re Upset

People usually don’t start acting this way without reason. There’s usually a reason they’re upset. Often, passive-aggressive behavior arises when someone doesn’t know how to handle their emotions in a healthy way. It could also be from competition. For example, two people who want a promotion could lash out at each other. 

Whatever the cause,  one approach is to understand your coworker. That can help you determine the right way to interact with them. For example, you might approach someone’s manager rather than them directly if you determine they’re upset with you.In that situation, try to avoid bad-mouthing the employee and instead frame it as a concern for the team

As an HR expert, you might have others come to you in these situations. This could be an opportunity to encourage empathy. Consider having a conversation about the root cause of the problem to help your teammate work through the situation. 

Consider Why They’re Handling It Indirectly

It’s also important to understand why someone might choose this route instead of handling their disagreement directly. Sometimes this behavior pattern can be learned as a child. For example, if someone didn’t feel safe to express negative feelings at home, they might develop passive techniques. 

For some, this habit could be absorbed as an adult. They might be acting this way as a manipulation tactic. Or they might be afraid of confrontation. Often, this behavior only appears in certain situations. Some people are only passive-aggressive at work but not elsewhere.

Another challenge could occur when the individual isn’t able to resolve the issue directly.  For example, this could happen if the conflict is with their manager or if they’re competing for a promotion and don’t feel able to talk with the other candidate. In a situation like this, consider why the person felt compelled to act a certain way. Then try to respond with empathy to resolve the issue. 

Acknowledge Your Own Responsibility

If someone is always passive-aggressive, that’s one issue to address. However, if it’s a new development, there could be a specific incident that inspired it. This is a separate issue from chronic poor treatment.  When that’s the case, it’s possible that you aren’t entirely blameless. It’s notjustified to be passive-aggressive, but they could have a legitimate reason to be unhappy. Consider thinking about your actions and how to take responsibility for them. 

Acknowledging your own mistakes can display emotional maturity and leadership. That can also teach your coworker how to handle situations directly. 

Be Assertive but Not Too Assertive

In many situations, it can be helpful to have a one-on-one conversation with the coworker. Instead of only sending a calendar invite, be assertive and polite while asking in person. Here are some tips for balancing assertiveness while talking with a teammate: 

  • Let your coworker talk. It can be effective communication to listen first. This is an opportunity for them to express their frustration. That can help you work toward resolving the problem. 
  • Ask empathetic questions. If you need to learn more, try focusing on asking empathetic questions. For example, you might ask, “How did that experience make you feel?” 
  • Don’t make accusations. Ultimately, you don’t want to hurt your coworker. This incident is likely because of difficulties expressing hard emotions. Accusations only lead to defensiveness. 

Set Clear Expectations

Another approach is to set up clear expectations before problems arise. That could include official company-wide communication. For example, you might include the language employees are expected to use with each other in the employee handbook. This can also help foster  a culture of transparent communication. 

Look Out for Yourself

Ultimately, try to prioritize your wellbeing. It can help to:

  • Set boundaries. It’s okay to set boundaries with a coworker. You might choose not to interact with them regularly. When negative situations occur, it’s okay to remove yourself from the interaction. 
  • Get support. When a situation escalates, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. That might mean reaching out to the coworker’s manager or your leaders. They may be able to help you resolve the situation. 
  • De-stress after work. Once you leave work, put the situation behind you as best you can. Try to put it out of your mind with healthy activities like exercising, cooking your favorite meal, meditating, or spending time with loved ones. 
  • Ask for help. Being treated poorly can hurt. It can often help to speak with a therapist. You might also try meditating each day to support your mental health

Cultivate a Positive Culture of Wellbeing

Employees who have to regularly handle passive-aggressive behavior often have lower levels of wellbeing. In addition to addressing the situation, you can replenish their wellness with an effective wellbeing program. Gym memberships, meditation app subscriptions, personal trainers, and more can help them restore on a personal and professional level. 

And these programs are appreciated by more than tired employees: 77% of workers engage with their worker’s wellbeing benefits. Such widespread use can help spread a positive culture throughout your organization where no passive-aggressive behavior is tolerated.

Talk to a wellbeing specialist to discover how Gympass can help you improve employee wellbeing.

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Gympass Editorial Team

The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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