How to handle a passive-aggressive employee

Kate Palmer, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula, discusses how to manage challenging employees

If you’ve ever come across an employee who’s irrational, hostile and has a cynical demeanour, you might find you have a passive-aggressive worker on your hands.

Passive-aggressive behaviour can vary greatly depending on the circumstances; however, common examples in the workplace include deliberately excluding colleagues from relevant emails or business meetings. Simple actions such as refusing to acknowledge good work may also be an indicator of passive-aggressive behaviour. 

Open and honest communication is key to a successful business. Individuals who display passive-aggressive behaviour can often pose a threat to the harmony of the working environment. As opposed to regular aggression, which is easier to identify, passive aggression is usually much subtler. Nevertheless, it can be equally as detrimental if allowed to continue unchallenged.

Some employers may be inclined to dismiss these actions as minor inconveniences, especially when you consider that the alternative could be a full-blown workplace confrontation. However, passive-aggressive behaviour can create a sense of unease at work, harming morale and overall productivity.

Employers must stay alert to passive-aggressive behaviour and intervene where necessary. Line managers play an essential role here and should be encouraged to identify individuals who may be acting out of character.

Regular one-to-one meetings allow employers to talk with staff who are displaying passive-aggressive behaviour. During these meetings, employers should ask staff to disclose any issues they may be having at work and look to resolve this where necessary.

It may be that the employee is unhappy with an assigned task, or the conduct of a colleague, and in the case of the latter employers may require further action to be taken. A crucial part of managing employees is mediating between individuals who may not see eye to eye on a professional level. In these scenarios, employers may require a ‘clear the air’ discussion.

Ultimately, employers should remain vigilant to passive-aggressive behaviour and always encourage staff to disclose any workplace issues in the first instance to avoid unhappiness in the workplace. 

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