Five Ways to Deal With Passive-Aggressive Colleagues

Passive Aggressive Rachel Farrell, Special to CareerBuilder

On just about every reality TV show, from 'The Bachelor' to 'Jersey Shore' to 'The Real Housewives of' (pick a city -- any city), we hear the same thing: "I don't like drama."

But disdain for drama isn't limited to our favorite reality stars. It's also apparent in the workplace.

Think about your colleagues for a second. Can you think of one who constantly gossips, sabotages information or makes snarky remarks followed by "just joking!" Maybe he says "everything is fine" -- but he says so with an attitude. All of these behaviors are only a few of the ways passive aggressiveness manifests itself at work.

But why?

"The reason people are passive aggressive comes down to fear -- fear that they aren't qualified to do their job or that you might be outshining them or that there aren't enough raises and bonuses to go around," says Frances Cole Jones, author of 'The Wow Factor: The 33 Things You Must (and Must Not) Do to Guarantee Your Edge in Today's Business World.'

Passive-aggressive people tend show hostile behaviors but try to do so in subtle ways, most likely because they don't want to endure conflict. More often than not, however, this type of behavior is easily identified -- which can lead to consequences for the passive aggressor in the office.

"The passive-aggressive person may feel important for spreading the gossip or they seem competent for having the information in-hand. They get the cheap laugh but the consequences will eventually arrive," Cole Jones warns. "They will get a reputation as a gossip, a saboteur or a 'class clown.'"

Choosing not to participate in passive aggressiveness at work -- either by calling out a co-worker on his or her conduct and/or by not exhibiting such behavior yourself -- can also reap benefits.

"These people gain respect in the eyes of their colleagues and, most importantly, their behavior is noted by their C-level staff," she says. "They are reassured they have the potential to join their ranks."

If you have passive-aggressive colleagues, Cole Jones offers these five tips to help deal with their behavior in the office:

1. Keep conversations factual.

Try not to let feelings get in the way of the facts. "If a colleague is chronically late, for example, instead of saying, 'You always come in 15 minutes late,' try saying, 'The day begins at 9AM. I've noticed the last three days you have arrived at 9:15AM. Please arrive on time.'"

Some people feel that co-workers who shed tears during reviews or other high-emotion situations are passive aggressive. "If you have a 'cryer' in your office, be kind, but firm," she suggests. For instance, say, "Why don't you step outside and collect yourself and we will continue this then?"

2. Keep a paper trail.

"Always BCC (blind copy) yourself on important e-mails and documents. Follow up any in-person meeting with an e-mail stating, 'This is what we discussed. These are my action steps and/or deadlines for moving forward. Please let me know if you have any questions or anticipate any problems.'"

3. Don't engage or encourage the behavior.

"If the passive-aggressive offender makes an inappropriate or unfunny remark, rather than laughing it off, respond with, 'I don't understand what you're saying.' It's more than likely they won't have the temerity to repeat it," she says. "If someone tries to draw you in with gossip, smile and say, 'I'd rather not speculate.' Then remove yourself from the situation."

4. Don't allow others to hide behind technology.

"If you feel the offending colleague is using e-mail or other technology to wage his war, send a note saying, 'I'd prefer to discuss this in person. What time works for you?'" she suggests. "You will be surprised how few people respond."

5. Don't be afraid to probe.

Passive-aggressive types sometimes use "fine" in place of other choice expletives, she says.

"If you feel his 'fine' is taking the place of frustration or anger, probe a bit. 'I hear you saying 'fine,' but I have the sense there's some underlying frustration. Can I do anything more to help you understand the goal?'" she says. "Notice you haven't said, 'I sense you are frustrated,' which can make them clamp down even more."

Next: Our Favorite Passive Aggressive, Dwight From TV's "The Office"

Related Stories from The Huffington Post

Rachel Farrell researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.

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Randolph Scott

Actually, it is not really that they do not respect others, it is because they have no self-respect.

March 26 2013 at 3:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Quite often, the reason people are passive-aggressive at work has nothing at all to do with fear. Surprising as it it for some to believe, many people do not like their jobs and they are very frustrated at work. Either they do not respect the people that they work for or with, or they can't stand wasting their lives away sitting in a cubicle hell five days a week. For these people, passive agressive behavior merely makes showing up for work every morning something that they can tolerate while they plan their next career move.

March 21 2011 at 12:30 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Let's not forget one of the main reasons they feel a need to act this way --they are control freaks! Pushing your buttons gives them a sense of power. I suggest not powering off emails in return stating "I'd prefer to discuss this in person..." and responding to the offender with tons of paper trail. When you get called in for your review and your boss shows you all the RETURN emails and says you had a bad tone in them, you'll be the one looking like the monster, not the culprit. I suggest taking hand notes in meetings and keeping them in a folder because once you start saying "here's what we talked about in the meeting (from your point of view) the offender will be writing back saying "oh, no it wasn't and you forgot this and that." I say go in to work, do the best job you can, and keep brief records on a calendar booklet where you can make a note of specific instances. If the boss calls you in for problems with the defender, you can bring out your booklet and site any specific days/events.

March 21 2011 at 12:24 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Have noticed through the years that anyone can turn passive-aggressive under certain circumstances. In other words, they are not normally or naturally passive-aggressive. For instance, hostility between unit or division or branch chiefs can be so bad that it impacts the work of the rest of the crews. For some strange reason, the behavior between those at the top goes completely unnoticed at performance review time and the individual crew member's performance is then treated as if it is a stand-alone situation and he/she is immune from all the flack flying overhead that they had nothing to do with. This gets even stickier when the boss is in a chronic lousy mood because of his nasty divorce proceedings, so when a supervisor says something like I notice that even though you say things are fine that there is an undercurrent. What can we do to help you? What kind of a response should anyone give to that? How about "the boss should be in rehab until he recovers his equilibrium from the divorce cuz he is making life miserable for everyone around him." yeah, right!

March 21 2011 at 9:21 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

So, according to this article, especially the last parts, the way to combat the passive /aggressive coworker is to fight fire with fire. You left out the worker that never gets a word in edge wise at home, or is constantly told to shut the hell up once they get home. So, the result is they get into a bit of minor power at work & become crazoids. It's the only place anyone will listen to them & they go over board with it, to the point of inflicting pain with everything they do, including using passive agressive techniques. It's even worse when it's the boss. As a nurse for 30 yrs. I have seen this almost every single day, on every single job I've worked. At first I often thought the dedication to the job was why so many coworkers put in such horribly long hours. No, it was because they never got to speak when they went home & if they did, no one even cared or paid attention. If this person is the charge nurse/administrator, watch out. Not only are the other staff on the losing end in everything, so are the patients. But, if you think this is bad ........just go to any inter-departmental meeting, where they all gather. I'm amazed any thing ever gets done when everyone is simply talking to talk to be heard, often with nothing really being said, let alone accomplished. Generally most "meetings" on the job are worthless, wastes of time, but these take the cake. The gathering of the gagged, suddenly unleashed forcing others to much ado about nothing.......mood swings would be an improvement. So, over the years, I've found just diving into my work, putting the patient first, & ONLY listening to the patient. The patient is the most valuable when it comes to often figuring out what's actually the problem or what's going on with the patient's health. It's much more rewarding than putting up with the unnecessary stress of trouble makers. Afterall, isn't that why you became a nurse anyway? I won't go into the doctors that often are the worst offenders of all. That'll be reserved for an article on superiority complexes.

March 21 2011 at 8:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jbear10024's comment
Hi BulldogandRex

It sounds to me like you might be a little passive agressive. What can we do to help you?

March 21 2011 at 8:44 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Many of these masters of passive aggression are so manipulative and politically connected that they are never caught or face the consequences of their actions even after it is discovered and someone who was their victim has already lost their job. Also, many of these people will group with other passive aggressive manipulators and gang up on one individual because that person makes them feel insecure with their work ethics and knowledge prevent them or one of their buddies from getting a raise or promotion. Sometimes you have to do more than keep a paper trail to protect yourself since some of these people will use some of the tactics against you in order to make you look the part of the trouble maker. Getting witnesses (especially senior personnel) to validate your claims about this behavior from the those plotting to sabotage your career is far more helpful in drawing them out like the infection that they are so all can see them for what they are and then maybe they will finally face the consequences of their actions or at least it will remove the doubts about your performance that they have created.

March 21 2011 at 8:31 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gurusoldier's comment

Agreed. They're called bullies !

US workplace culture is filled with incompetent bullies and backstabbers.

June 09 2011 at 1:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I've had coworkers who would play what I call 'Mood Swing Theater'. Folks who'd expect me and others to feel daunted by their building anger. Patient, detached and firm's the way to go with them. By remaining opbjective-and declining to be as emotional as they are-I found dealing with them less stressful.

March 20 2011 at 8:05 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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