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How Do I Deal With Passive-Aggressive Whiners at the Office?

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

I feel like I’m constantly under siege by whiners, hostage-takers and passive-aggressive bombardiers. How do I handle them when all I want to do is throttle them? — Patrick M., Roanoke, Virginia
Welcome to the world of management! If you thought moving up the corporate ladder was just about power and glory, you’re coming face-to-face with one of the best-kept secrets in management: It’s really hard work!

The workplace is a melting pot of personality types and personality disorders. You didn’t mention narcissists, gossips or others who provide significant challenges, so let’s talk about your employee troika and how best to manage them.

  • The Whiner. This is your chronic complainer. Nothing is ever right, and nothing will ever be right. Not only is this irritating, but it also comes with real cognitive debilitations, including disruptions to learning, memory, attention and judgment. You need to determine if there are any legitimate beefs buried within that negativity and fix those if they’re genuine. Then capture the complaints, and in a 1:1, request that your whiner provide realistic solutions to the problems. Let the employee have an active role if any of the solutions are feasible. If they continue to be negative, counsel them on how the negativity is adversely affecting team productivity and collaboration. Be prepared to take the next steps in disciplining the employee.
  • The Hostage-Taker. This is the employee who threatens to quit whenever they perceive they’ve been wronged. Usually, s/he assumes this role when they believe they have a hard-to-replace role or skill set in your company. Make sure you’ve got documented knowledge-transfer templates for projects, contacts, files, etc., as well as individuals who are cross-trained to help out in a pinch, and an active recruiting pipeline. Don’t be afraid to call their bluff, or you’ll really be held hostage.
  • The Passive-Aggressive Bombardier. This is the employee who appears on the surface to be passive, but instead, purposefully manipulates events and actions to ensure negative outcomes. For example, s/he doesn’t refuse to do the work that’s assigned, but doesn’t complete it on time, accurately or completely. Their hope is that you’ll start assigning work to others so they only get easy and unimportant assignments. Don’t pander to this behavior. Continue to assign the type of work appropriate for their level and experience, working with them to develop a project plan and discrete milestones for which they will be accountable. They’ll be agonizing to manage and try to make your life miserable. Document the behaviors and outcomes and be prepared to take disciplinary action.

What’s the common thread with each of these problem employees? You need the managerial courage to set a course of action and stick with it. Most importantly, don’t be intimidated by your employees. There are so many talented individuals in the workforce; there should be little room for prima donnas.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.