A post-it note stuck to your monitor, a "general reminder" during a staff meeting that can only be directed at one person, an overly-loud conversation between two coworkers about pet peeves shortly after you heated up your tikka masala lunch--we've all been on the receiving end of passive aggressive behaviour at work, and most of us have dished it out a time or two as well. But it's time to acknowledge the simple fact that there is no room for passive aggressiveness in business.
For one thing, we can all agree that it solves absolutely nothing. Never once has a company-wide email reminding people not to bring highly-spiced, odiferous foods for lunch actually stopped anyone from bringing highly-spiced, odiferous foods for lunch. What it does do, however, is further the resentment of the masses towards that one person that really enjoys eating curried meals midday, and isolate that person by publicly shaming them for their food preferences simply because a few people do not share the same flavour palate. In this scenario, the subject of the passive aggressive reminder knows that they are the target of it, and this will affect their mood at work going forward due to embarrassment. For some, it may lead to distancing themselves from their coworkers to avoid any other potentially embarrassing situations that may become the next company-wide email reminder.
Sometimes it isn't as easy to pinpoint the target of passive aggressive actions, and this only causes more discord and discomfort in an office environment. Music is a great example in this case because people are so passionate about what they like and dislike listening to while they work. So, imagine working in an environment where everyone has their own office, but there are no doors to close to hold in that sound. Naturally, everyone in that shared space will try to find a volume balance where they can enjoy their chosen music without disturbing the rest of the office. But even that isn't enough for some people.
An example: Molly* is listening to country music, and Sharon* really dislikes hearing snippets of it when she walks past Molly's office. Sharon then complains to Manager Tara* about Molly's music. This leads to Manager Tara reminding everyone to keep their music quiet to ensure that no one is disturbed by it, but never mentions to Molly that there was a complaint about her music. How is Molly to know that she needs to adjust her volume? She won't, which will lead to more complaints from Sharon, and more reminders from Manager Tara to keep the volumes down-- a frustratingly cyclical situation where, at some point, I imagine that Sharon will run short of patience and confront Molly, or angrily gossip about how obtuse Molly is for not understanding that the generic music reminder was directed at her.
This entire scenario sounds ridiculous typed out, but these kinds of situations happen daily in offices across the country. People feel isolated, picked on, shamed--and for no good reason, either.
There is nothing unprofessional about being direct with someone. So long as you are treating people with respect, and not belittling or condescending to the people you work with, being direct is generally the best way to deal with any situation. If Sharon has just asked Molly to turn her music down slightly, she would have saved everyone in the office from having to endure those reminders and Sharon's frustrations. And everyone will be much happier in the long run, I promise.
*Names are made up, naturally.
Author's Note: I've been sitting on versions of this post for a few months now. I've been hesitant to post it because I never want my clients to think that I'm calling them out or being negative about them. This post is based on a cumulation of over a decade of experience in the business world.
Wonderland Media is a digital media agency located in Edmonton, Alberta that specialises in creating and implementing strategies for: social media, content marketing, public relations, event marketing, branding, and graphic design. Owner and creative director Ashley Fisher puts her decade of experience with marketing, design, and writing to good use by guiding small businesses and bloggers through the digital marketing quagmire.