Ask Merly: Passive Behaviour

I started in a new job a couple of months ago and I LOVE the company. My career is really moving in the right direction, I’m learning loads, the shift patterns are really manageable and my boss tries to never schedule doubles, we get great staff food and for the most part I really get along with my colleagues. But there’s one person on my team who seems to really dislike me, and I’m starting to really dread going in to work. I’m not sure whether I can raise it with my boss, because there aren’t any specific bad incidents – it’s just so many little things, like constantly going on about little mistakes that I’ve made, and talking to me in a really patronising or sarcastic way. It’s making me really doubt my ability, but also because there’s nothing specific, and other people don’t seem to notice, it’s making me question whether I’m overreacting and I’m beating myself up about being weak. I feel a bit mad! What do you think I should do?


Merly Advice


Hmmm what a tricky subject and something that is so common. It can be rather challenging knowing how to deal with certain people at work, especially in the first few months of a job. It sounds like you are dealing with a form of passive aggressive behaviour. Passive aggressiveness involves harbouring negative feelings (such as anger, jealously or annoyance) but indirectly expressing these feelings and masking it instead with some other forms of hostility. Sarcasm, being spoken to in a patronising way and constantly being reminded of small mistakes are signs of this treatment. It can be intentional or unintentional but either way it’s toxic for certain people in the environment, such as yourself, or the whole brigade. Even if you enjoy your job, it can absolutely make you doubt your ability and hinder your desire to go to work. Some may bypass it and give it some sort of legitimacy such as ‘a clash of personalities’, ‘a hard management style’ or because you’re relatively new to your role and it’s some sort of ‘test’, when it’s not. It is in fact a form of bullying.


Passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace can be subtle and hard to decipher. So, for the benefit of yourself and anyone else reading this I’ve added a few more signs below:


  • A negative air of superiority
  • Blaming others
  • Rejecting other perspectives and feedback
  • The silent treatment
  • Disguised insults
  • Not being supportive of others
  • Making excuses
  • Never giving a straight answer
  • Gossiping


Trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s usually because it isn’t. You could keep a note of when it happens so you have proof at least for yourself to look back at, as well as others (if the time comes). Jot down what happened, when it took place, how you felt at the time and any witnesses. Much too often we just let things slide but secretly we hold on to it and it mounts up substantially, eventually eating us up whole. Another good indicator to whether something is off is to compare this relationship to others that you have had in your career and think about what makes them healthier than the one you are having with this particular person.


Think about how this attitude benefits him/her. What is the outcome motivating this person to communicate with you in this way? What do they achieve by not expressing themselves directly? It’s most probably because they feel fearful or insecure about something and need to feel superior / feel worthy / irreplaceable or they are unhappy in themselves for other reasons. It may be something not actually down to you but an issue from elsewhere in their lives.


Another good question which might give you more perspective is in what ways are you perhaps enabling this passive aggressive dynamic and somehow giving them permission to carry on in this way? This is not to say this is in any way your fault, you are most probably just doing your best to try and get along and signalling that’s “it’s fine” in some way…when it’s not. Maybe it’s time to try something different. Don’t give them a response that fuels them and don’t think you should just suck up such treatment. If you’re able to, talk it through with a colleague or a friend to get a different perspective. Someone on your team may be more perceptive to their actions than you think and help you to establish what you would like to do about it. At the very least you shouldn’t be going through this on your own, it’s perfectly understandable to be annoyed, upset or frustrated by passive aggressiveness, and having some trusted people you can download to outside of your communication with this person is something I strongly recommend.


If you get the feeling that this relationship is not going to get better over time and you would like some clarity then you could consider talking to them directly and informally. Letting them know that you sense there’s an issue between you and that you are open to discussion may be enough to get them to stop. Although beware, you may not like what they have to say but it may give you some context around what’s the problem and give you a chance to clear the air. Even if it is something that is directly to do with you, it’s still not acceptable. If that doesn’t help or things escalate, then take it further via formal channels so you can get the support you need.


ACAS Workplace Bullying Rights

If you get to the point where you do need to deal with it formally then make your boss /HR aware that you believe that some form of passive aggressiveness or bullying is going on, they should take the necessary steps to get the issue mediated and resolved. It may be also worth getting to know your company’s policies on bullying in the workplace. In addition, ACAS offer some very good support and advice on your rights regarding workplace bullying and harassment.


Good luck x






Hi Countertalk community,


You know that we’ve got you right? When you’re dealing with those big issues, you want someone who really gets it. Merly is an ex-chef, therapist, stress reduction coach and founder of @me_myself_inmind, which provides workshops, one-to-one therapy and group therapy for you incredible, hard-working, hard-caring people in the hospitality industry. Their mission is built around educating others on stress reduction techniques, mental health awareness and the importance of learning coping skills, emotional resilience and self awareness. Maybe you are working right now, or maybe you are at home learning to adjust. Those skills are still sorely needed to boost our wellbeing whatever we are up to.


Merly is on hand with her problem page to answer some of our community’s burning personal and work issues. If you would like to submit a problem, please email askmerly@countertalk.co.uk. All questions are completely confidential and kept 100% anonymous, now and always.


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