How to Handle a passive aggressive co-worker

In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at what passive-aggressive behavior looks like in the workplace, and then offer tips on addressing the situation before it escalates. 

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

Often difficult to explain — passive aggressive situations become apparent when they happen. It’s generally a gut instinct. Perhaps you get the feeling one thing’s been said to one person, another thing to someone else. Perhaps a colleague has started cutting you out of team meetings for no apparent reason. 

While we’re all guilty of it every once in a while — persistent passive aggression can be demoralizing and do real damage around the workplace. It’s this behavior must be addressed

Why are people passive-aggressive?

Passive-aggressive behavior could be caused by a variety of reasons. Maybe an individual feels insecure or lacks the desirable confidence to initiate difficult conversations at work. At other times, factors like stress and anxiety may force someone to shy away from the effort of having a tough talk. Other reasons include grudges, immaturity — or simply just a lack of empathy.

However, several common communication barriers in the workplace can cause misunderstandings. Sometimes, someone’s not being a passive-aggressive coworker; rather, they just communicate in a different way than you.

In this case, you may share a portion of the blame. Ask yourself whether you may have contributed to the dynamic in any way: Often, subtle emotional responses from both sides can hurt emotions and further escalate the situation.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker – Follow these 8 simple steps


Approaching a passive-aggressive coworker can feel a bit daunting, especially if their behavior hasn’t been obviously hostile. Here are some tips to guide you toward a positive outcome. You’ll be chatting back over a lunch break in no time.


  1. Recognize their motives

In the wake of a snarky comment, this may be the last thing you want to do, but understanding their motives can gather insight into the situation. ” It is extremely advantageous to separate the passive from the aggressive,”  states Mike Rash, Chief Executive Officer here at MCDA CCG, Inc.. “The aggressive portion is generally motivated by the same things that make anyone aggressive.” 

“The more interesting part is what makes people passive,” Mike Rash continues. “I believe it is just simply fear. Unfortunately, conflict between people has been dangerous or deadly throughout human history. It’s natural and even useful to be conflict-hesitant. In passive-aggressive people, the fear stops them from being direct, but their aggression leads to them acting out or speaking up in passive ways.”

Understanding that it comes from a place of fear might help relax your irritation and approach the situation from a place of compassion rather than anger.

It’s also important to consider the context. Is there an underlying business goal you need to address? Perhaps your colleague doesn’t agree with how you’re doing things, or perhaps they feel micromanaged. Looking at this from a workplace perspective might help you work together toward a productive outcome.

  1. Keep your cool

Hopefully, understanding motives has soothed some of that initial frustration, but if you still feel a level of fire, ensure to acknowledge it during the conversation while making your best effort to keep your emotions from erupting. Remember, they were scared about talking to you directly, and if you explode, you’ll only confirm their fears. The aim of the game is to take the high road and demonstrate  your professionalism, maturity, and integrity.

Never accuse the person of being passive-aggressive, immature, or otherwise engage in any other name-calling. It’ll likely make them even more defensive and angry — neither of which are conducive to having a productive chat.

  1. Find support if needed

If the passive-aggressive behavior has escalated beyond your control, emotions are running particularly high, and/or your greatest efforts to improve the situation have failed, then you may need to invite someone else into the chat.

A member of HR or your boss can help mediate the conversation if needed. Be careful here, though: Your boss might not see their behavior in the same way. You may want to consider asking their opinion before you jump into these waters.

Frame it sensibly – as you’re trying to productively improve the relationship, rather than making it sound like you’re badmouthing your colleague or gossiping. Simply asking them what they thought of a comment/action/response can help you work out whether there’s a real problem, or you’ve just misread someone.

  1. Be open

Sometimes, passive-aggressive people don’t fully understand the hurt they’re causing. Staying silent both condones the behavior and it means your own mental wellbeing gets overlooked. When speaking to the person in question, be honest about your needs and feelings while staying polite and kind. This helps you feel heard, while deep down they’ll appreciate your honesty.

  1. Help your coworker

When someone has been behaving unprofessionally, it’s difficult to want to help them, however, this is your chance to take the upper hand. Aim to present the situation neutrally rather than assigning blame which could make them head to the defensive. Keep in mind your goal is to resolve the situation in a way that meets both of your needs. Here are some phrases you might like to insert into your conversation:

“Could you help me understand…?”

“I’m wondering what you thought about…?”

“From my point of view, this felt….what do you think about that?”

“I’m listening”

“I understand your point of view. Here’s how it felt for me.”

The passive-aggressive person wants to feel heard, but for some reason, felt unable to make it happen themselves. Offer them ways to communicate effectively to build trust and reach the root cause of the issue. The more comfortable you can make them feel, the more open they’ll be.

  1. Work on your relationship

Conversations like these aren’t easy to have. After the meeting, break the ice with some friendly conversation to show there are no hard feelings. If you’re using email or messaging on a chat app such as skype, don’t be afraid to add an emoji or gif to keep the tone light. This will remove remaining tension and help strengthen the foundation of trust and openness you’ve both just worked on.

A day or two after you’ve had your meeting, go back to the person and thank them again for their time. Talk about the points they raised while steering clear of the emotional side of things. 9 out of 10 times, passive-aggressive people just want to feel listened to and the negativity is just as unpleasant for them as it is for you.

  1. Take charge of the situation

If the person is being unreasonable, be proactive about it. Keep emails and records where necessary, and speak to your boss. Don’t let the passive-aggressive person speak on behalf of you in any circumstance, and if possible, avoid working with them.

If you do have to work together, try to do it in a group setting where they may behave in a less hostile manner. You might not be able to fix them, but you can certainly take control of your own interactions and reactions.  Do not allow yourself to be in an unwanted situation.  

  1. Look outwards

Sometimes a passive-aggressive coworker has behavior that stems from workplace culture rather than any one individual. It could arise when leaders deal with problems passive-aggressively. Or perhaps employees don’t feel connected enough to address issues with each other openly and candidly. The stronger the company culture is, the better employee relationships will be.

If you think there’s a team or company-wide issue, you could try raising it with your boss, or suggest team-building activities to strengthen relationships. If your suggestions fall on deaf ears, then it might be time to move on. Workplace culture is vital to wellbeing: If it’s positive and vibrant, you’ll feel happier and work better.


This being said, what is the ultimate breaking point in deciding when it’s time to move on? From a leadership perspective, situations of passive aggressive behavior in your workplace should not be taken lightly. Maybe the situation was initially misinterpreted to your HR team, or maybe you don’t have a dedicated HR department -whatever the reason-conflict, tension, and frustration will impact employee morale and productivity.

Unfortunately, employee relations issues rarely, if ever, get better when left alone. They only worsen. MCDA CCG, Inc. can help. Get in touch with our team of experts-headquartered in Placentia, Orange County, California, for a no-obligation consultation today!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: