Dealing With Passive-Aggressive Colleagues in the Age of WFH

passive aggression

“Wow, that’s such great work… for you, anyway.”

You can’t believe you have to deal with their passive-aggressive bullsh*t yet again. It was bad enough when they’d make you doubt yourself in the break room and blame things on you in open meetings that weren’t your fault.

Now you’re all working from home (WFH), their quest to undermine you is compounded by so many factors that make it worse. You’re not used to the WFH atmosphere. You’re concerned about job security, struggling to read tone and body language, and working out when to contribute during group chats.

You can receive passive aggression through so many more channels than before. It was actually easier in person – you knew what you were dealing with. Now, with the emphasis on Zoom, Slack, and email, you’re struggling to piece it all together. Are they, too, struggling to communicate? Or are they just being a d*ck?

Your professional and personal lives are changing. It’s not better or worse – just a strange adjustment during strange times. No wonder it all feels so weird.

How to spot passive aggression when you’re WFH

Zoom meetings can go from zero to Handforth Parish Council Meeting really quickly – make sure you stay on top of negativity.

Passive aggression occurs when people feel resentful or hostile but express that through indirect means. Sometimes, passive-aggressive people want to undermine others. At other times, their tone may just be a little short or seem sarcastic when it’s not.

So how do you spot it? It’s easy to have crossed wires with passive aggression, especially over Zoom, where you might not pick up on it – or you might misinterpret an innocent act or sentence as passive aggression. 

Sometimes, however, it’s overt. One member of Team Vippi experienced this in the workplace recently. A colleague who worked in shipping reported to them. The shipping clerk rarely did tasks correctly. In scrambling to cover their tracks whenever they sent packages to the wrong country, they’d regularly be uncontactable for long periods. 

Then, when our friend could get hold of them, any responses to feedback from this shipping agent were terse and snappy. The atmosphere was always sour, the agent never improved, and the company ultimately suffered. But the shipping clerk had a sunny disposition in all other meetings, so it’d be your word against theirs. A typical dilemma in passive aggressive scenarios don’t you agree?

This is what passive aggression looks like:

  • Sarcasm. This might come across in unintentional gestures, eye rolls, or shrugs. It might just be active sarcasm. “Did you send off that paperwork, Paul?” “Sure, and then I organized the next moon landing. It’ll be there when it’s there.”
  • The cold shoulder. Your colleague instigates radio silence in work messaging apps, especially over services like Slack or Skype Chat, where rapid responses are generally expected. If a message shows as “seen” or “read” without response, you can assume they’ve ignored it.
  • Deliberately not finishing tasks – or not doing them at all. If your subordinate or colleague keeps avoiding a task hoping that someone else will pick up the slack, this is a form of passive aggression. “Yeah, I’ve got sh*t to do tonight. I can’t finish our presentation – you’ll finish it for me, though, right?”
  • Disguised insults. “Yeah, the CEO is coming this week, so you need to borrow a blazer if you don’t have one” “But that one’s too small…” “Well, skip lunch one day this week. It’ll be good for you.” The implication is that the employee is obese and should skip lunch to lose weight. Insults are still insults, even when they’re disguised as jokes.
  • Cynicism and misguided feelings of superiority. We’ve all experienced that dismissive chuckle and smirk followed but an “oooookay, then.” This is usually accompanied by dismissing someone else’s ideas or feelings.
  • The blame game. Publicly apportioning blame to other people for acts they didn’t commit isn’t what you’d typically file under passive aggression, but think about it – it’s a way to attack someone without directly confronting them, especially if it’s in front of other people.
  • ‘Indirecting’ on social media or office comms. ‘Indirecting’ is a term from the deep, dark glossary of Twitter, referring to a mention of “someone on my timeline” behaving a certain way without directly mentioning their username. The target, however, often knows that the communication is about them. The same dynamic is possible at work. “Someone’s been using all the milk in the fridge without replacing it, and I know who. If it’s done, swap it out. It’s not hard.”
  • Consistently rejecting the feedback and viewpoints of others. If you continually shut down any route for others to give feedback on your actions or ideas, it’s passive aggression. The same applies if you constantly make someone feel like their opinion is invalid.
  • Talking sh*t about other people. This type of aggression is so passive that you’re not even in the room for it. Folks who spread rumors about people and gossip about stuff that has nothing to do with them are passive-aggressive to a tee.
  • Talking about underappreciation. While it’s a legitimate way to feel sometimes, this is too often used by subordinates to attack their manager’s approach under a softer banner. “I feel underappreciated” is usually a guarded request for a higher salary. But sometimes, it’s a sign that a management style needs to be tweaked to a more constructive approach. Don’t become one of the feedback blockers – but know where to draw the line.

These are the building blocks of a toxic workplace. Sometimes, people don’t even realize they’re passive-aggressive – it’s just a projection of inner negativity or frustration. 

But improving communication can help reduce the risk of low morale and burnout in your team, so it’s essential to take a proactive approach in bringing an end to passive aggression.

So when is it real passive aggression, and when is it just Zoom faux pas?

We don’t all get video conferencing right. Some people don’t find it natural – and that’s fine. But it’s important to know when someone is passively trying to hurt you and when they’re simply feeling awkward.

Gauge their body language. 

  • Are their arms folded?
  • Is their head in their hands like a caricature of a bored person?
  • Are they consistently distracted or not paying attention during meetings? 
  • Are they actively doing something else while you’re talking to them?

What’s the context around the act of passive aggression? 

  • Are they behaving passive-aggressively in response to a request? 
  • Do you usually make this request?
  • Does the request get fulfilled in the end?
  • Is the act of passive aggression part of a pattern or an isolated incident?
  • Have you recently given them feedback or constructive criticism?

Do their actions f*ck with your ability to get through a day?

  • Is their passive aggression getting between you and finishing what you need to?
  • Do their actions directly impact your job satisfaction?
  • Do their behaviors extend beyond the job – i.e., are they also like this at the work social?

Observe how they respond to you compared to all other colleagues. If a possible passive aggressor is only this way with you, it’s more likely to be targeted. If they’re just *like* this in all contexts, you may just have to take it on the chin.

How often do they butt in? Turn-taking in Zoom is notoriously more difficult than in face-to-face conversations. But if they bully their way into becoming the lead speaker more often than not, it’s likely that any passive aggression is intentional.

Do they consistently talk negatively about others? If a person is usually the picture of glowing positivity but airs a grievance or takes the tone down a notch, it’s probably a genuine expression of concern. If they’re a judgmental douchebag about everyone, it’s likely to suggest a broader pattern of toxic behavior.

What can HR do about passive aggression?

Our meetings are virtual, right? HR teams and nonchalant bosses might argue that we are just ‘imagining’ any passive aggression. Yet our instincts don’t lie. We know where our lines of respect have been crossed. So is there any way to prove that a person was passive-aggressive?

The bad news: rarely.

People don’t necessarily have corporate protection from passive aggression, especially when that aggression is top-down – from managers to direct reports during appraisals and feedback. 

HR still operates in a very one-sided world. Companies require absolute proof before they take action, but passive aggression in the workplace is notoriously slippery. If something isn’t an outright act of aggression, like violence or a racial slur, it can be open to interpretation.

“I was just having a bad day.”

“They just saw it that way! It was a joke, for Pete’s sake.”

“I’m just being straightforward and direct – you can see it in the email.”

If your colleague or boss responds to a request in a passive-aggressive way, nothing is going to stick on their disciplinary record. HR might not view it in the way you are, but they’ll also discount the effect it’s having on you.

It might even make them put a red flag on your file for trying to start ‘trouble.’ (Which smells a lot like passive aggression to Team Vippi, but anyway…)

How to escalate passive aggression up the food chain

It might feel necessary to do the right thing. But corporate justice is not the same as civil justice, and a misjudged complaint filing may end up backfiring on you. The benefit of the doubt often falls on the side of authority.

Have a look at your HR team’s track record when it comes to passive aggression

  • How have they handled previous cases?
  • Do complaints often fall on deaf ears? 
  • Does HR regularly penalize the victim? 

The best way to flag inappropriate workplace behaviors is using a generic approach. Ask your HR team or your bosses what their policy is towards passive aggression. There may even be a section in the employee handbook that covers precisely this type of incident.

So what do you do when HR doesn’t take your side? They may take the side of the aggressor or simply ignore your account altogether. This will give the aggressor license to accelerate their behavior and make you feel doubly helpless.

HR is pretty restricted on the matter by how much they can genuinely prove. Any passive aggression can simply be put down to poor Zoom etiquette or not being used to the work messaging system (although after over a year of WFH now, that excuse doesn’t cut it).

So how can you protect yourself? 

  1. Be sure that you’re experiencing passive aggression. A one-off or occasional incident doesn’t make it passive aggression. But if someone constantly repeats their passive-aggressive approach, it’s consistent, deliberate, and malicious. In that case, make a note of how often they behave this way, collect evidence, and confirm that it’s been happening over a significant period. Then, speak to colleagues who may be in the same boat – it might be more fruitful to build a case together.
  2. Avoid stooping to the same level. If you respond in kind, you’ll have less leverage with HR when you escalate your complaint. As far as you can, try staying patient and positive. The aggressor shouldn’t be able to say that you, too, were being passive-aggressive.
  3. You can start by asking that all meetings are recorded on Zoom. It doesn’t even have to be from a POV of “I am experiencing passive aggression” – say you want to record them for later reference. Unless they had something to hide, no meeting attendee is going to decline this privilege. There’s a “record meeting” button at the bottom of the window. Use it to your advantage.
  4. Alternatively, record any voice calls secretly on a smartphone. If they know they’re being recorded, the passive aggressor might dial down their behavior a little – good for you, temporarily, but it also doesn’t help you prove the scale of the wider problem. Every smartphone has a voice or dictaphone app you can use to secretly record the meeting if you suspect you’re being bullied with passive aggression.
  5. Have a union rep or colleague in the meeting with you. If your office and role are unionized and HR won’t get on board with your complaint, have a union rep with you in every meeting. You can also ask that a colleague joins you as your representative.
  6. If nothing is resolved, this might be a toxic workplace worth leaving. If your higher-ups don’t have your back and a colleague or manager makes your life miserable, you don’t have to sit there and take it. Find a way to transfer to a different team or apply to a different company. Applying for jobs while you have another job means you’re doing so from a position of strength.
  7. Realize that there will be consequences regardless. Working life will never be the same again in the same company once you escalate a complaint like this. 

How victims can manage passive aggression without going to HR

Referring complaints to HR isn’t always the best way to handle passive aggression. You might have to manage these behaviors using interpersonal communication skills. It’s still possible to handle passive aggression without raising any hackles or jeopardizing your career.

Set clear workload guidelines among the team, then approach the manager.

WFH has changed expectations. For example, should employees be working during the time that would’ve been their commute? Is that their time or company time? There’s no correct answer, and the solution depends on reaching a healthy consensus.

If passive aggression is a response to an overstepping of unspoken boundaries, it’s time to reinforce or discuss these boundaries and work out how the workforce should relate to them.

You may be on a team who feels aggrieved about their obligations, for example. Every day, you’re just wrapping up your final sale, and your boss comes over and asks you to complete a last-minute report – bye-bye, 5 pm hometime.

This might foster passive aggression in two ways:

  1. To you and your colleagues, it seems like your boss is deliberately making you work late.
  2. To the boss, it seems like a reluctance to do your job if you push back and say, “it’s nearly hometime.” The boss expects you to work while you would have been commuting.

Without communication, you’ll never know which applies. It’s usually neither – it’s just that the WFH situation is new, and no guidelines were put in place.

So have a secret meeting with your colleagues and work out an acceptable compromise  – perhaps, for example, no additional tasks after 3 pm on a Friday, which would allow you and your colleagues to wrap up for the week. But you’re all fine to work a little beyond your previous hometime.

Then, approach your boss with a plan that includes a little give and take. You’d be surprised how many times this will put a pin in any simmering passive aggression.

Have or suggest a meeting-free day.

People might seem short or passive-aggressive due to Zoom fatigue. The source of their frustration may not be you, but rather the number of meetings they have – especially if that’s how they’re socializing with their friends and family, too.

Suggest a day every week or month during which they can unplug, focus on other tasks, and avoid the constant obligation to talk to people.

You’ll find most people pretty receptive to the idea. Zoom has overburdened everyone’s time and energy. One day away from those expectations can be pretty powerful.

Engage in constructive confrontation. 

Passive aggression sucks, but don’t become aggressive aggressive in response. You can identify potentially harmful behaviors and raise them as roadblocks to a professional relationship while remaining warm, empathetic, and understanding.

Sinking to the same depths of misdirected negativity does no favors to you, the aggressor, or the company. And it will likely get you in more trouble. Instead, call out the behaviors in a way that suggests you’re trying to help the aggressor rather than judge them.

“So, I’m picking up on some negative vibes here – is there anything I can help with? Or is something on your mind? I don’t mind providing a neutral ear.”

Even if you don’t get to the root of the behavior, responding with compassion instead of negativity can help them foster brighter interactions.

Record all of your meetings.

If a person persists with passive aggression despite any mediation, make use of Zoom’s record feature. The actions you think are passive-aggressive might not read the same way when you rewatch them in context.

Sometimes, people are simply passive-aggressive a-holes. You won’t change their behavior, so it might be time to think about the best ways to avoid it.

Zoom etiquette: How to be less passive-aggressive on video chat

Are you the one being accused of passive aggression? Here’s how to develop self-awareness of your mannerisms and speech.

Don’t be passive-aggressive.

This seems obvious, but if you’re facing accusations of passive aggression, have an honest word with yourself. If you are passive-aggressive, you’ve reached the point where your behaviors are affecting others. Perhaps it’s time to look at how you interact with the world.

Sure, some things annoy you. But if your job’s at stake, a sunnier approach might be more suitable.

Avoid being too abrupt.

Yes, meetings need to end on time, but you’re still human. Suppose you’d usually have been light and breezy with people but come across short on Zoom, because you’re uncomfortable with the format. In that case, you might accidentally give the impression you’re passive-aggressive.

Don’t forget the in-person pleasantries and mannerisms that make face-to-face conversation a more wholesome affair. Smile, make appropriate jokes or comments, and ask questions. A blunt “no” or “yes” is still jarring, even when you’re on a time limit.

Be aware of your body language. 

This is a significant factor of Zoomunication that most people get wrong. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re on camera. As a result, it’s easy to look like you find a conversation tedious and irritating when you don’t. Or, you genuinely find a meeting boring and annoying but can’t hide it as well as you used to.

You can avoid the “folded arms” or “head in hands, bored” poses if you keep your camera restricted to your head and shoulders only.

Protect yourself. Note-taking isn’t just there to identify any potential passive aggressors – it can also help you protect yourself under accusations that you’re passive-aggressive. Make brief notes on every meeting, what was discussed, and how light-hearted it was.

Identify any patches of discontent or friction, and make sure you have a reason for their emergence. Was the issue resolved? Did you make an effort to end the conversation on a friendly note?

Go over the top in being friendly.

This might seem fake, but on Zoom, it comes across as entirely normal.

People also appreciate a friendly smile and a chat when those are harder to come by in person. You might have to make more of an effort just to reach a base level of “normal” friendliness.

Mute your mic when it’s not your turn.

Aside from the practical etiquette of avoiding interruptions, this also means that you have to unmute yourself to say anything. The unmuting period gives you an extra few seconds to breathe, pause, and consider your response to any unsavory news or requests.

You don’t have to like everything that’s said to you or every request a boss makes of you on a Zoom call. But reacting in a passive-aggressive way can have consequences – just make sure you raise questions as questions and not accusations or confrontations.

Don’t do other stuff while you’re on the call. 

This is just flat-out rude. It’s always clear when someone’s doing other work while you’re on a call with them. The same goes for those twiddling on their phones or looking away from the screen.

When you’re in a meeting, you’re in a meeting. Focus on the conversation at hand. Put any other necessary tasks or distractions off until after the meeting.

Blatantly ignoring the conversation will always come across as passive aggression. We know you can do better.

The Roundup.

Yes, passive aggression sucks. No, it’s not always on purpose – and HR departments often have a very tough time separating valid accusations from office politics without hard evidence. Even deliberate passive aggression is hard to prove.

However, communicating effectively, setting new boundaries in a WFH world, and giving constructive but direct feedback can help you cope with passive aggressors.

And if you’re being accused of passive aggression, it may just be that you need to get a bit more comfortable with the WFH work ethic and communication style. A little self-awareness goes a long way.

Article resources

Anandrak, K. (2020). 3 tactics I use to deal with petty, passive aggressive coworkers.

Hall-Flavin, D.K., et al. (2019). What is passive-aggressive behavior? What are some of the signs? 

Prabhu, M. (2020). How to shut down a passive aggressive coworker.

Wilding, M. (2021). 7 ways to deal with passive aggressive behavior at work, according to a career coach. 

Zoom meetings: Etiquette and best practices. (n.d.).