10 ways to navigate passive aggressive ‘put downs’ in the workplace

angry coworker, disruptive behaviour featuredWhen a person is indirectly aggressive, their behaviour may fall under the umbrella of passive aggressive. 

According to UK Google trend data, the search term passive aggressive behaviour has received a 227.27% uplift within the last year alone (May 20 – April 21).  Such an uplift reflects the nations uncertainty with regards to how to navigate falling victim to such conduct.

Here, HR Director Hayley Cross at Improb presents how to spot 10 common passive aggressive ‘put downs’ in the workplace and how to navigate them.

A dose of sarcasm served with a smile.

The interpretation of statements spoken by co-workers is prescriptive to each person as what one person believes is funny, another may deem offensive.  Sarcasm is often a tool to convey contempt using a mocking tone.  The use of sarcasm combined with a friendly smile is often the armour of choice by someone exerting passive aggressive behaviour.  Difficult to decipher, passive aggressive behaviour disguised as sarcasm can spark insecurity within the workplace.

‘If a co-worker is consistently sarcastic, explore whether they use similar language to others.  If you feel that you are being targeted, make a note of occasions that made you feel uncomfortable, this will ensure that you hold evidence should you need it in the future’, states Cross.  ‘If you feel comfortable, when you think that the colleague is demonstrating passive aggressive behaviour, comment on their use of sarcasm.  This will make them aware that it has been noted.  Remember, if the behaviour is persistent and impacting your wellbeing, formally voice your concerns (with your evidence), to your line manager and/or HR department.’


Ghosting is not an action held exclusively for the dating arena.  Those that are passive aggressive often practice ‘the silent treatment’, ignoring those that they feel deserve such behaviour.  As much of the UK continues to work from home, the silent treatment can play havoc with the workplace as messages and video calls are ignored.

‘If you feel that you are being ghosted by a colleague, attempt to get in touch with them VIA messages and emails (in other words, in writing only)’ says Cross.  This will serve as evidence that you may be the victim of ghosting and provide examples if needed.  If you feel comfortable, openly (and casually) ask if there is difficulty with communication and present ways that it can be rectified.’

Answering a question with a question

>> ‘Why?’>> ‘are you not able to?’>> ‘Can you do it’?>> ‘Maybe’.

According to Cross, the above statements are all examples of potential passive aggressive behaviour.  ‘Answering a question with a question can make a person feel insecure in their knowledge as they can feel that they should know the answer to what they now feel may be a ‘silly question’.  Stand firm on your feet and ask the question again.  No question is a silly question if you do not know the answer and if you feel that a situation is becoming unfair, suggest an open discussion where it can be rectified’.


Short, sharp answers through online platforms can spark uncertainty as they can be interpreted in many ways, whether it be rude, blunt, or annoyed.  ‘If you feel that a colleague is consistently short with you in messages, opt for video chats instead’, advises Cross.  ‘Video chats can ensure that a person is likely to misinterpret statements and gain more of an insight into the intent behind a person’s words.’

Faux concern.

Faux concern is synonymous with passive aggressive behaviour.  According to Cross, there is an easy way to avoid this situation.  ‘Be mindful with regards to who you share your troubles with and who is in your presence when talking to other colleagues.  This will avoid presenting certain co-workers with opportunity to deliver passive aggressive behaviour’.

Last minute Nancy

A person that exhibits passive aggressive behaviour may work to make a colleague’s life difficult on purpose.  This often means that they will be purposely late to deliver work or submit in the last seconds of a deadline.  If you feel that a colleague is often late on purpose, provide them with polite reminders as time draws closer to when the work is due.  This will limit their excuses to being late or even missing deadlines.

…it was a compliment…. I think.

Backhanded compliments can be difficult to decode as a compliment is often sprinkled over an insult.  ‘If a colleague is prone to providing backhanded compliments, remove the fuel that you may provide’, says Cross.  ‘In other words, ignore the comment or give a courteous thank you, only referring to the part of the comment that is a compliment.  Those that are passive aggressive tend to like it when there is evidence of their actions having a negative impact.  Removing the fuel towards this hinders the person who is passive aggressive meeting their objective’.

It is a no from me.

The easiest way for a colleague to make working life difficult is to consistently reject any ideas or propositions of work.  ‘If a colleague often disallows work going their way, it is worth scheduling a meeting with your line manager’, says Cross.  ‘People often may feel that this is drastic action however, it doesn’t have to be.  Line managers need to know the goings on of their department and believe it vital that you voice anything that you feel is a hindrance to a person completing their work’.

It is not me it is you.

Claiming innocence and insinuating that your judgment is unfair can be hard to handle.  It is also textbook passive aggressive behaviour.  ‘Remember, to be open to other people’s opinion’, advises Cross.  ‘However, do not be afraid to stand your ground in a professional manner’.

‘I’m here.’

The current climate shines a spotlight on the negative impact of a person’s tardiness as those that are punctual are forced to make small talk on Zoom.  A colleague that is passive aggressive tends to stress that they are complying with the wishes of others, however, conveniently ignore aspects that see them not fulfil their side of the bargain. Instead of apologising that they are late, they may simply state, ‘I am here’, letting it be known that they have met at least part of their agreement, making it hard to criticise them.

‘Do not let a colleague sit behind a smokescreen.  If they are not fulfilling their duties, it is vital that you contact the necessary channels.  A HR department is impartial and is there to ensure the smooth running of the workplace.  Do not be afraid to approach them if you are unsure on how to navigate a situation.’

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