Can you rehabilitate a passive aggressive employee?

August 4, 2011: 12:16 PM ET

They're awfully hard to spot because they seem agreeable to your face, but they drag their feet or sabotage projects behind your back. Is there an antidote?

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- During a month-long household move, Patty Shore, director of marketing at Creative Energy Options, asked to bring her dog to the consulting firm's White Haven, Pa. offices. Everyone at the company expressed enthusiasm, president Sylvia Lafair recalls, but before long, one employee began complaining that the dog, a mixed-breed collie named Mr. Ray, hovered outside her office and wouldn't leave her alone.

Shore tried to restrict Mr. Ray to the other end of the office, but couldn't keep the pup away from the complainer. "Finally, two people came to me and said, 'She has dog biscuits in the drawer of her desk and feeds the dog when nobody is looking,'" says Lafair.  "It was very devious."

Lafair confronted the employee about her passive aggressive behavior and received a wide-eyed response: she just felt sorry for the dog. After a few more incidents of underhanded behavior and performance issues, Lafair had to fire the problem employee.

"Passive aggressive people will say yes to your face and stab you in the back," she says. "Sometimes you can't help.... They need to be asked to leave."

Passive-aggressive employees present one of the toughest workplace challenges to both managers and coworkers. The behavior can be difficult to identify, and even tougher to change. Left unaddressed, passive-aggressive actions can spread to other employees and create a culture of heel dragging and mute rebellion.

"The passive aggressive stuff is like a cancer. It's insidious and if you walk by it, you're saying it's acceptable and it will spread to others," says George Bradt, a consultant and author of The New Leader's 100 Day Action Plan. "The prescription is, head it off at the pass."

Spotting the symptoms

An employee who shows up late to meetings, sits in the back of the room, and mutters to colleagues is displaying some of the classic signs of passive aggressive behavior. Most telling is when a person misses an important milestone and claims that he was attending to something more important, such as meeting with clients.

"They're saying, 'What I committed to you, to the team to do, I really didn't mean I was going to do it, because you are less important than someone else,'" Bradt says.

Sometimes, you can't spot the behavior because it's so passive and under the surface. "Look for a disturbance in the force," advises Peter Handal, chairman and chief executive of leadership consulting firm Dale Carnegie & Associates. "If this team isn't working right, what's the problem? Sometimes it might be somebody who, on the surface, looks very agreeable but underneath isn't being productive."

You may need to resort to "skip-level meetings," in which you meet directly with the problem employee's subordinates. This technique alerted Bradt to one situation in which his direct report was agreeing to certain work goals to his face but then telling his staff to work on different priorities. "I found out he was blocking all my communication to his team," he recalls.

Potential treatments

For the brave souls who try to rehabilitate a passive-aggressive employee, it's important to understand what is driving the behavior. "People who are behaving passive aggressively are trying to do one of two things: Gain control in a situation where they don't have it, or avoid conflict," says Terry R. Bacon, a scholar in residence at the Korn/Ferry Institute and author of The Elements of Power and Elements of Influence.

The first step is to try to bring the conflict or dispute out into the open, gently. If you hear that someone is pooh-poohing your ideas behind your back, say something like, "When I presented that idea in the meeting, I thought it was a pretty good idea at the time, but I wonder if there would be some alternatives that would be better. What do you think?" Bacon suggests.

"Try to get them to problem solve so they will tell you what it is they are objecting to," Bacon says. If you still encounter resistance and denial, you could say, "I know you said you supported it, but I got the sense that you were uncomfortable about it in some way. I really would like to understand how you really feel."

If you can get the other person to acknowledge that there is an issue, you'll have already won half the battle. Next, turn them into an ally for your cause by giving them some measure of control. "Use confrontation as a last resort," Bacon advises.

Bradt recommends that you give problem employees your full support in every way, but then watch to see whether their attitude turns around. If the individual doesn't  declare a change of heart within six to eight weeks, he's probably a lost cause.

If you have someone who's dragging their feet on projects, add a chaperone to the mix and make public whatever promises they give to get work done. For instance, if a passive aggressive worker promises to get you data by a specific date,  confirm that commitment with the employee in front of someone who needs that data.

"When you make the agreement public like that, it's harder for the person to duck it," Bacon says.

If these first efforts fail to stop the passive aggressive behavior, you can try to impose consequences when they don't meet their goals. Refuse to recap meetings for someone who arrives late, which both encourages those who showed up on time and penalizes those who dawdled. And if someone makes excuses for missing a deadline, consider saying, "you must have too much on your plate," and look to others to take on additional assignments. If this seems like a passive aggressive response, well, you may have to fight fire with fire.

When it's time to throw in the towel

Ultimately, you may have to acknowledge that you've done all you can do and either transfer that person to another department or fire them.

At Voices.com, a marketplace for voiceover talent based in London, Ontario, all 20 staff members attend a mandatory daily "huddle" that lasts 15 minutes, says David Ciccarelli, the company's president and CEO. When one department head started to show up late, leave early, or just skip the meeting altogether, Ciccarelli knew there was a problem.

"It's my health check," he says of the huddle. "If someone's withdrawing constantly from that, I know there's a deeper issue because they don't want to be seen by other people in the company."

This particular employee also made disparaging remarks about Voices.com customers who had problems or complaints. Ciccarelli met with the person and asked for an attitude improvement, but the problem only grew worse and he had to fire the employee.

"Everybody saw it coming," he says. "It was starting to wear on other people."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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