“Help! How do I handle my passive-aggressive employee?”

  • Employee Conduct
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Meet Dom, a gym owner in North Yorkshire. He’s struggling to control a passive-aggressive staff member and asked Kate Palmer, Peninsula’s Associate Director of Advisory, for expert advice.

Meet Dom, a gym owner in North Yorkshire.

He’s struggling to control a passive-aggressive staff member and asked Kate Palmer, Peninsula’s Associate Director of Advisory, for expert advice.

Dom’s dilemma

My head fitness instructor used to be my favourite employee. But he’s just got back from three weeks off sick and hasn’t been the same since.

He’s started being lazy with his work, moaning about the gym’s rules, and he even made fun of a trainee instructor in front of a class.

Then he sent me this email earlier—probably the most passive-aggressive message I’ve ever seen. Can you take a look?

Subject: Need to speak with you ASAP

Dear Dom,

Apologies for the delayed response.

Per my last email, this is just a friendly reminder that I NEED to take this Thursday off.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have our employee handbook in my hand, and it says that staff will be granted additional leave for medical appointments. So it shouldn’t come off my holiday allowance, as you no doubt are aware.

Going forward, I’d prefer that you actually followed the rules you set yourself. Thanks in advance, and apologies if I was unclear before.

Also, I heard from a colleague that you were thinking of hiring another instructor. Any updates on this? Please advise.



Kate’s response to Dom

Thank you for getting in touch, Dom. You’re right to be worried.

Normal aggression, such as shouting or slamming doors, is obvious. But passive-aggressive behaviour is the perfect workplace crime. It often goes undetected, and when it is spotted, the culprit can easily plead innocence.

Let’s pick out some of the email’s most passive-aggressive lines for translation, and then look at ways you can tackle such conduct.

What Julian said: “Apologies for my delayed response”

What Julian meant: “I had far more important and better things to do”

Julian comes out swinging with a classic to put you straight on the back foot.

A one-to-one meeting is always the first step in solving passive-aggressive behaviour. Give him the chance to privately ‘clear the air’, and you might find work issues that you can easily resolve. He’ll also respect you for taking an interest in his thoughts.

Just don’t make the meeting seem like he’s in trouble, as his attitude will only get worse.

What Julian said: “Per my last email”

What Julian meant: “Are you daring to ignore me? Or can you just not read?”

Perhaps the most common passive-aggressive phrase used in email.

Aggressive behaviour is often rooted in problems in the worker’s personal life. Have you considered an employee assistance programme (EAP) for your business?

An EAP is a range of wellbeing support services, like 24/7 telephone advice and face-to-face counselling, that help your staff deal with life’s problems.

Some large companies set up their own programmes. But small businesses like yours tend to subscribe to a specialist EAP supplier and register your employees for access to its services.

Studies show that EAPs help lower workplace stress by 35%. And they benefit business owners, too—EAPs can cut absence levels almost in half, and improve company productivity by as much as 8%.

What Julian said: “Friendly reminder that I NEED to take this Thursday off”

What Julian meant: “I’m not feeling friendly… and you WILL you give me time off.”

You’re not legally required to give staff time off for general doctor, dentist or hospital appointments.

The only exception is for antenatal appointments, where your employees do have the right to time off. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that Julian isn’t expecting!

But if Julian does have a genuine medical appointment, then it may make your life easier to appease him. Even if you feel his previous three-week absence was excessive.

On a side note, if your employee is disabled and you don’t give them leave for an appointment related to their disability, they could claim discrimination and take you to a tribunal. If that’s the case, it’s worth getting expert legal advice.

What Julian said: “Correct me if I’m wrong”

What Julian meant:I’m not wrong, but I’d like to see you try and challenge me.” Or “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”

As you said earlier, Julian has been rude to his colleagues as well as you. So he seems to have a general behaviour problem, rather than issues with certain people.

Have you set any rules on behaviour at your gym?

Writing a code of conduct can help outline how you expect your employees to act. It should cover areas like attitudes towards work, respect for co-workers, and appropriate language in the workplace.

The code is also a good place to define your company’s mission, values and principles, to make sure everyone is working towards a common goal.

What Julian said: “Going forward, I’d prefer that you…”

What Julian meant: “NEVER, EVER do this again.”

It’s hard to stay professional when your employee shows such little respect towards you. But try to remain calm. If you respond with aggression too, the situation will only get worse.

If you feel unable to deal with Julian fairly, it may be worth hiring an impartial expert to hold external training sessions for your staff.

Corporate workshops cover topics from stress management to resilience at work. They’re delivered by HR & health specialists, and take place at a location of your choice.

What Julian said: “Thanks in advance, and apologies if I was unclear”

What Julian meant: “I’m not even giving you the chance to say no, you’re doing this whether you like it or not,” and “I’m not sorry for being unclear, a four-year-old could understand this.”

If the behaviour continues to disrupt your workplace, you may have to discipline Julian. Be sure to follow a fair disciplinary process, and give him both a verbal and then a written warning before any final dismissal.

Make sure you keep hold of your emails with him, and record your interactions, too. You might need them in the future to protect your company in a tribunal.

I hope this helps. If you need any more help with Julian, call my team of HR experts for free advice on 0800 028 2420.

Good luck,

Kate Palmer

HR Advice and Consultancy Director


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