clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Passive aggression may be the perfect office crime

The blamer, the beleaguered and the apparently stupid only appear to be complying

It's the perfect office crime. Of all the workplace's misdemeanors, from the CC:list demotion to intellectual-property theft, passive aggression is among the most untraceable infractions. The assaulter, who appears to comply with a request but actually resists it, quietly commits not one crime but two.

After the initial injury, it doubly torments the victim by making him look like a twit for complaining about something as slippery as the aggressor's tone or attitude. At its worst, the victim can seem so paranoid — "You did that on purpose!" — that it's best to nod and slowly back away.

In this peak season of passive aggression — it's performance-review time — here's a small repertoire of passive-aggressive moves for both bosses and employees.

Methods include intentional inefficiency, avoiding responsibility by claiming forgetfulness, complaining, blaming others, resentment, sullenness and resistance to suggestions from others. They can confound their target, contort cowardice into bravery and make you feel like a teenager again. Notes Lawrence Levine, an employment-communications manager whose defenses against passive-aggressive employees haven't been terribly successful: "Only the quick and the dead have avoided passive aggressives."

The Blamer Unplugged. One way for a boss to defeat a staffer before anything happens is to talk about how easy a task will be while assigning it. Simple, easy, shouldn't take too much time at all, said one supervisor to his staff at the business-forms publisher Steve Wengronowitz used to work for. "He had belittled the contribution in advance," he says. "If you successfully completed the task, there was no way you could look good. On the other hand, if you failed, you blew something minor and simple." On rare occasion, an employee can counter with a Me-And-What-Army? response, but success is limited.

About-to-Blow Beleaguered Colleague. This person has gone through so much stress by the time she arrives at work, everyone fears a radioactive breach. One secretary who worked alongside marketing consultant Bill Huey would arrive at the office so overwhelmed with family mishaps that no one was willing to add another straw to her back: "If given a task, it would take so long that you regretted ever asking in the first place," he says. "She faked flabbergasted fecklessness." It worked.

How much work did she do?

"Not much," he says.

Call Me Stupid. Few forms of passive aggression are better at making the victim look ridiculous than suggesting one doesn't understand the simple instructions given. Take, for example, a former vice president at the management-consulting firm where George Adzick works. The vice president went on vacation and left a voice mail to that effect, noting he wouldn't be available for any service until the following week. This didn't convey the kind of can-do spirit Adzick preferred. So he told the vice president to change his message — but not his vacation plans — and make no mention of being on vacation. Still, the vice president pretended Adzick was trying to deprive him of a vacation. Ultimately, he changed his voice mail. Notice how petty Adzick appears, however, in explaining what bothered him about the vice president's compliance: "He didn't do it with any kind of inspiration at all."

The Low Blow of Aiming High. Any boss-hater who wants to get his boss in trouble can reluctantly violate the sacrosanct rule of going over his head by simply waiting until the boss is out of the office. Then, trump up some need that "forces" you to go over his head to solicit the boss for help.

Wengronowitz witnessed this on several occasions at his former company. And the perp would say to his boss's boss: "I'd like to ask Bob but I can't find him." These case files are sure to remain cold. His tracks were covered: "He couldn't criticize him for going to the big boss with a pseudo-legitimate question."

The Deadly Silence. Sometimes the best way to send a message is to say nothing at all. The victim invariably encounters a sleepless night while the passive aggressor tours slumberland. Wengronowitz once witnessed a colleague sit through 16 hours of off-site meetings without saying one word. Even when she was asked a direct question, she merely smiled and shrugged. "You're left to complain about a person's attitude without being able to pin it down farther than that," he says. "If you complain about it, you're the jerk."

The Turning Worms. This subtle aggressor signs on to all the boss's new initiatives with the commitment of a crusader, so far as the boss is concerned. But it's another story for everyone else. He "feels compelled to buy insurance for personal survival by snidely disagreeing privately" to the boss's corporate foes, notes James Baar, author of "Ultimate Severance." He also serves up derogative tidbits in the cafeteria or raises seemingly innocent questions like, "Wonder what the board would say if they knew what he was doing?" Baar notes that "these are wormy people." But you'd never know it. "You can't lay a finger on them."