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How to Shut Down a Passive-Aggressive Co-Worker

By InHerSight – Feb 23, 2020 at 9:00AM

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Handling things respectfully is key.

This article originally appeared on InHerSight.com, a website where women rate the female-friendliness of their employers and get matched to companies that fit their needs.

Passive aggression just plain sucks. While we might be able to escape a friendship or relationship that is wrought with eye-rolls and sarcastic side comments simply by leaving the situation (and the person, duh), that unfortunately isn't the way the professional world works. A passive aggressive colleague -- especially one you often have to interact with -- can be a huge drain! Luckily, it's a problem that can be solved, usually without you having to look for a new job (we'll talk about that, too, though).

A person with head on desk and book covering head holds a sign that says "HELP!"

Image source: Getty Images.

How to shut down a passive-aggressive co-worker

Passive aggression in the workplace generally manifests from a person's desire to avoid head-on conflict, likely because they believe it will be destructive. Causes vary from envy and jealousy to personal dislike and personality disorders. Passive aggression is never pleasant to dwell on, but it's important to understand where it stems from in order to properly attend to it. Some questions to ask yourself:

1. Is my colleague frequently passive aggressive?

Are they just having a bad day -- maybe they forgot to label their lunch and someone else ate it; that would make me pretty peeved, too -- or is this kind of behavior typical of them?

2. Is the passive aggression overtly and uniquely targeted at me?

If you think it's personal, it can be much more hurtful. 

3. Does this behavior negatively interfere with my ability to work efficiently and to the best of my ability? 

4. Does this behavior negatively interfere with my happiness and satisfaction with my job?

If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, it's definitely time to address the situation! Here are some practical solutions:

Do some honest self-reflection

None of us is perfect, try as we might to be. It's possible that some of your behaviors have elicited a passive-aggressive response from your colleague and that you're unknowingly contributing to the situation. It would be beneficial to think back to your recent professional interactions with your colleague -- especially the ones that were public. Could you have called them out or made them feel insecure in some way? Have you gotten upset with them and refused to tell them why? Have you ever said their project or presentation was "fine" when you really didn't think so? All of these things are normal human responses to potentially conflict-provoking situations. That being said, they can be offensive and hurtful; if you're guilty as charged, make sure to apologize. It could fix all of your problems. 

Practice constructive confrontation

Confrontation is easier said than done; we've all been there. Especially for my fellow people-pleasers out there, it can be daunting to address something that's on our minds. That's OK! Learn to trust your gut and know that your feelings are valid. Asking your passive-aggressive co-worker to step aside and talk through what's on your mind is totally called for; often, they are doing something unintentionally and will make a concerted effort to stop. Respect is key here, obviously. Professional relationships have professional boundaries, which means you have to make sure to watch your language, avoid being accusatory (don't tell them they are being "passive-aggressive"), and treat your colleague with kindness! 

Ask for help

If the one-on-one confrontation doesn't work, then there's no shame in bringing in a third party to help. Whether it be your manager, a level-headed colleague, or an HR officer, someone who isn't emotionally tied to the situation can help establish necessary boundaries between you and your colleague and create sustainable solutions that work for both of you. Here are some possible solutions to think about:

1. Keep your passive-aggressive colleague publicly accountable for their actions

This especially pertains to situations where your colleague is making you look bad. Maybe they purposely didn't finish their portion of a team project or presentation in hopes that you would pick up the slack before the deadline. That is unacceptable! Try distributing responsibilities for projects in front of a manager or putting them in writing to prevent these slimy situations from happening.  

2. Try to foster a friendship 

Maybe this one's a stretch, but getting coffee or taking a lunch break together could help make things more amicable. You might not be pals right away, but baby steps are powerful. Who knows? This whole thing might just be a misunderstanding or the product of miscommunication. 

3. Periodically get input

On occasion, check in with the manager, colleague, or HR rep you contacted for help initially. If they're willing, allow them to be your confidante regarding this situation; if there are setbacks or is progress to be noted, they can give you advice. 

Side note: It's most important to prioritize your safety and well-being. If your colleague's passive-aggressive behavior enters the territory of harassment or emotional abuse, the situation should be treated very seriously. Report it immediately. Additionally, if you have multiple colleagues who display passive aggression toward you, this could be an indicator of a larger problem with the culture of your workplace. Remember that toxic behavior should not be the norm, and you don't have to stand for it. Find a workplace that is respectful and welcoming of you every day.

The Motley Fool has an ownership interest in InHerSight. Motley Fool CFO Ollen Douglass serves on the board of directors for InHerSight. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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