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5 of the most passive aggressive things you can do at work

From leaving snarky post-it notes on the communal fridge to wearing a facial shield to avoid your colleagues – these are the most passive aggressive ways to get through the work day.

When you thrust a bunch of people into one space, forcing them to co-exist for eight plus hours each day, personalities are bound to clash.

Due to the professional nature of (most) workplaces, employees are discouraged from throwing a public tantrum when someone has upset them. Instead, they resort to an “office appropriate” response, which usually involves some kind of passive aggression.

Here are some of the worst of the bunch:

1.Turning yourself into a horse

Panasonic are the culprits behind a monstrosity – human blinders.  Who thinks to spend time, resources and money on this? The prototype has been made in conjunction with Future Life Factory, who say it’s “designed to aid concentration by limiting your senses of sight and hearing, via noise-canceling technology and a partition that controls your field of view”.

Image: via Future Life Factory.

I’ve put this at the top of the list for a reason. This is the most passive aggressive move you could make in the workplace. You’re literally blocking out the entire world, locking your focus solely on the screen in front of you  – isn’t there a big movement trying to get us to stop doing this?

Sure, sometimes we need to block out our chatty colleagues but that’s what headphones are for. I’m wearing mine right now. If you can’t handle being occasionally glanced at or spoken to in the workplace, maybe you need to consider working from home?

Why don’t we all wrap ourselves in a blanket, close our eyes and fall asleep at our desks while we’re at it?

2. The sneaky CC

We’ve all been guilty of this at some point. You’re exchanging some slightly heated words with a colleague over email and then, out of nowhere, enters the sneaky CC.

As the receiver, you’ll notice someone has suddenly joined your conversation, likely a manager. The CCer’s intention is to spook you into giving in, or to make you look the fool. The tricky thing is that you can’t complain about something like this. It’s perfectly appropriate to want to keep a superior involved in a workplace grievance. But you should really let someone know this happening – rather than just doing it.

It’s the equivalent of getting a teacher involved in a playground spat by shouting for them to rush over; it’s the adult version of being a dibber-dobber (famously, they’ve been known to kiss robbers).

3. Avoiding face-to-face communication

Don’t you hate it when you’ve been in a meeting with someone for hours – discussing strategies, budgets, and so on –  then, when it comes to ‘any other business’, they have none. You leave the meeting, perhaps take a brief walk around the office to stretch your legs and by the time you return to your desk you’ve got an email from the very person outlining their other business.

Yes, there are sometimes advantages to avoiding complicated face-to-face conflict. But addressing conflict via email, text message or another digital channel can be a surefire way to create yourself a misunderstanding.

4. Leaving collective notes intended for one person

We all know when someone posts in the company Slack channel saying: “Hi Everyone, just a friendly reminder not to leave your food in the kitchen sink, thanks!” They actually mean: “Helen, sort yourself out. Stop leaving bowls covered in dry pasta sauce in the sink. It’s gross!”

There’s two forms of passive aggression going on here. The first comes from the sender, who could just send a private message or as above, have a conversation with the offender. But the more unforgivable act of passive aggression in this scenario comes from Helen. She knows the constant string of Post-it notes on the fridge are aimed at her, yet she continues to let the employee pack take the blame. Not cool Helen, step up.

5. Skirting around the issue

So much of the language we use at work is cloaked in double meaning. If we said what we actually meant, we might be putting our relationships, and perhaps our jobs, on the line. So instead, we mask the true meaning in niceties.

  • “As per my last email…” really means: “Why aren’t you replying to my emails!?!” or “I’ve already explained this to you once, do you really need me to spoon feed this to you?”
  • The ball is in your court.” really means: “I’m absolving myself of any further responsibility regarding this matter.”
  • “I take your point, but may I offer another suggestion?” really means: “YOU’RE WRONG, I’M RIGHT.”
  • “Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood, but….” really means: “I know I haven’t misunderstood what you’ve saying because you’re not making any sense. I’m pointing out your flaws in an attempt to make you feel inadequate.”

In small doses passive aggression can be a helpful way to deal with issues at work (and to avoid public tantrums). It’s all part of the social contract we sign as humans navigating the workplace; similar to those little white lies we tell to get the job in the first place. Just make sure you’re aware of how often you’re doing it and to what extent. And if you wear those human blinkers, just stop.

What kind of passive aggressive work behaviour bother you most? Share them in the comment section below. (If you’re annoyed about something in this article, please leave passive aggressive comments only.)

Improve your self-awareness, resilience, influence and relationships within and outside of the workplace with the Ignition Training in-house training course ‘Applied emotional intelligence’.

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Awesome post, Kate! Fun and accurate read!


I was surprised to find that I am only guilty of two of these offences (2 & 5), as I am accused of being quite the proponent of passive aggression in the workplace. I copy in my supervisor when I reply to emails all the time, for a couple of reasons. One, to keep my supervisor in the loop with what the team is up to; and two, to highlight the ridiculous HR related queries that come from management who should know better. I also use some of the language in #5, but usually it’s in a different scenario. Picture… Read more »

David Smith
David Smith

And that is why according to the World Economic Forum, emotional intelligence will be a required skill in the workplace by 2020….


One of my personal favourites was from an old boss who used to say “with all due respect … ” which was a prelude to him totally discounting your opinion, and leaving you feeling disrespected. The Board eventually sacked him for bullying, passively and actively!


6. Publishing an article on-line highlighting the behaviours of your colleagues which you have unilaterally decided to label as passive aggressive.

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