Backhanded compliments, cruel jokes, project sabotage – there’s plenty of ways a person can be passive-aggressive. We’ve all been on the receiving end before, and it doesn’t feel good. It can be especially hard to deal with at work. Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of workplace bullying. Research has shown that workplace bullying can lead to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Passive-aggressive behavior is frustrating and upsetting, but how can we respond in a professional matter?

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 Handling a Passive-Aggressive Person

When dealing with a passive-aggressive person, don’t participate in their conflict. When a person uses passive-aggression, their goal is to try to get a reaction out of you. If you respond angrily you are just giving them what they want and making yourself look unprofessional in the process. A passive-aggressive co-worker feels frustrated and tries to get you to act out on the anger that they are harboring internally. The first thing you need to do in this situation is commit to staying calm and professional. This can be difficult, but an emotionally neutral response is the best way to handle the situation. Avoid revealing your frustration. This means fight that urge to use an angry tone, sarcasm, or aggressive body language.

Passive-aggression during a meeting

What if you are confronted by a passive-aggressive peer during a meeting? There are two main approaches to take. The first option is simple, silence. In avoiding an immediate response, most of the people around you will see through the aggravator’s attempt to publicly embarrass you. Your lack of response will highlight and expose the unprofessional behavior on their part. The second option is to state the facts. Without directly referring to or refuting the passive-aggressive comment, recite what you contributed to the project. Do not attempt to confront someone about a passive-aggressive statement in front of an audience, as tension and emotion can be heightened in the presence of others. After the meeting, calmly communicate your thoughts one-on-one with the passive-aggressive person. Many passive-aggressive people may be uncomfortable with direct, composed confrontation, and avoid targeting you in the future.

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Passive-Aggressive Emails

Computers eliminate the need to look your addressee in the eye. Some people will say things to you over email that they would never say to your face. Co-workers may use email to express a passive-aggressive sentiment, as face-to-face conflicts can be uncomfortable. How can we respond to someone hiding behind the computer? Remove the computer from the equation! Instead of sending a nasty email right back, take a few moments to cool off.  Once calm, go have a face-to-face discussion. If it’s impossible to meet in person, try to reach them over the phone. It’s important that you stop the vicious email cycle before it begins. If you feel like you’re about to start a passive aggressive email battle, back away from the keyboard.

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Your Success at Work

Don’t let someone else’s passive-aggression undermine your success. Passive-aggressive people may act covertly to postpone, obstruct, sabotage, or undermine your success at work. Examples of this behavior include withholding important information, conveniently “forgetting” deadlines, and undermining authority using gossip. To avoid this, be sure that expectations and deadlines for any task or project are 100% clear. If deadlines and expectations are indisputable, there is no ambiguity for a passive-aggressive co-worker to hide behind.

Passive-aggressive behavior has no place in the workplace. Unfortunately this type of hidden hostility can be hard to weed out. Remember that while you can’t control a co-workers behavior, you can control yours. Fight the urge to respond to hostility with hostility, and focus on your own personal success.


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