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The quiet side of harassment: Tips for workplace investigators

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Slurs, name-calling, swearing, yelling, taunting, eye rolling, profane jokes and innuendos, sexual harassment, violence to property or person: these are easily recognized as the types of behaviours which run afoul of workplace codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies. As a workplace investigator, what I find is equally (if not more) common in my practice are complaints about quiet or masked forms of hostility—the type of conduct that tends to go unnoticed except by the person on the receiving end. In other words: passive-aggressive behaviour.

Most of us have engaged in this kind of behaviour at one point or another. It offers an outlet for expressing anger or frustration while enabling a person to avoid the type of outright conflict that could bring discomfort or, worse, get them into trouble. It is easy to see why passive-aggressive conduct takes root in workplace settings. Employees spend a great deal of time together and engage with one another daily on matters that can touch deeply on their sense of self-worth and financial security, like performance feedback, workload issues, and promotion. Meanwhile, they are expected to act in a professional and civil manner or risk losing their job.

Though the behaviours associated with passive aggression often appear innocuous, they can quickly cross the line into bullying when used to punish, control, or manipulate another person. Some examples include:

    • Giving someone the silent treatment
    • Consistently avoiding eye contact or direct communication
    • Insults passed off as harmless sarcasm or teasing
    • Quietly sabotaging a colleague by deliberately stalling important tasks, holding back key work-related information, or being intentionally inefficient
    • Withholding true opinions when asked for feedback but spreading gossip behind closed doors
    • Excluding a colleague by leaving them out of lunch outings, coffee breaks, or other social activities

Even when the impetus for passive-aggressive behaviour on the part of the aggressor is more benign (ex., lack of communication skills, maladaptive emotional responses to conflict, perhaps from childhood trauma)1, the consequences for the person on the receiving end are no less significant, especially when it comes to passive aggression of the withholding variety, such as ignoring or excluding others. Research has found these to be just as harmful or more harmful than direct forms of harassment.2  This is no surprise given that ostracism threatens a person’s fundamental need for recognition, belonging, and meaningful existence.

Over time, the impact of these behaviours can take a physical and emotional toll on an employee, leading to burnout, stress, poorer levels of wellbeing, motivation, and job satisfaction.3 Moreover, if passive-aggressive conduct becomes the norm for dealing with conflict in the workplace, this can contribute to a culture that precludes an overall sense of psychological safety.

Tips for workplace investigators

Allegations of passive-aggressive harassment can be challenging to investigate. Where such behaviour has occurred, the aggressor reliably has plausible explanations to justify their behaviour. The omissions that often characterize passive aggression (ex., failing to acknowledge someone or to invite them to a social event) are easy to deny or pass off as unintentional. Blame can be deflected onto the recipient for being too sensitive. Also, there are often no witnesses.

On the other hand, passive aggression may not be at play. A complainant may have misread or misinterpreted the respondent’s actions. Their perspective may be clouded by discontent over any number of work-related issues. In my experience, investigating allegations of passive-aggressive conduct involves deciphering between misunderstandings and mistreatment, an undertaking that requires attention to detail and sensitivity to nuance. I offer the following tips.

Unpack buzzwords and generic descriptors: If a complainant uses a term like “gaslighting” or “silent treatment” to describe how they were treated, explore what it means to them. What the silent treatment looks like to one person may not look the same to the next.  It could entail a colleague ignoring their morning greetings and being extra friendly to others in their presence. Or it could involve the avoidance of face-to-face interactions in favour of electronic means of communication. Get as much detail as possible on the allegedly problematic behaviour, and put this to the respondent in advance of their interview so they have a fair opportunity to respond.

Delve deeper into generalizations: Passive-aggressive conduct often builds over time, and the person on the receiving end may not remember each incident. Where the allegations pertain to a pattern of conduct, the absence of evidence on each instance does not preclude a finding that the behaviour occurred. However, the allegations should have sufficient particulars to enable the respondent to provide a full response.

If a complainant alleges that a certain behaviour happened “all the time,” ask for all instances they do remember. You could start with the most recent one and move backwards from there. Obtain their evidence on the timeframe within which the behaviour allegedly occurred, and the approximate frequency. That way, if no corroborative evidence exists for either party, you will have adequate evidence upon which to assess the credibility of the parties and make findings of fact. Also, if you find that the allegations are substantiated, knowing the duration and frequency of the conduct will enable you to assess its severity, which can be relevant to determining whether the conduct amounted to harassment under the relevant company policy.

Context, context, context: Go beyond what the complainant says happened into why they believe it happened. Explore and understand the context. If there was an incident that the complainant believes triggered anger or hostility in the respondent, put this information to the respondent in advance of their interview so they fully understand what is being alleged. Again, the reason for this is twofold: 1) conducting a thorough investigation and 2) ensuring fairness to the respondent.

Approach questions with sensitivity: Keep in mind that while the damage of passive-aggressive behaviours can run deep, employees are often reluctant to report them for fear of appearing sensitive or petty. Though you will be required to probe deeply with the complainant to understand the nuances of their version of events and make findings about what occurred, bring a “warmly neutral” tone in your interview, as you should with the respondent. This creates an environment where they feel comfortable sharing relevant information while not giving them the impression that you are “on their side.”

The best way for employers to avoid complaints of passive-aggressive conduct is through prevention. This involves encouraging employees to have productive disagreements and to air their frustrations in a constructive manner. When such complaints do arise, getting to the bottom of what happened through an impartial, thorough, and fair investigation will enable the employer to identify and address the issue, whether it be harassment, communication failures, or misunderstandings.

1 For an insightful discussion on the relevance of intent in proving workplace harassment, see “The relevance of intent in workplace investigations” (August 17, 2021), a blog post written by my colleague, Bruce Best.

2 See “The Silent Treatment. Quietly undermining your workplace” (February 29, 2016), online:  Your Workplace Magazine <https://medium.com/your-workplace-magazine/the-silent-treatment-b853744bd17> ; and Jennifer Berdahl, “Passive Mistreatment In The Workplace” (Spring 2011), online: Rotman School of Management (utoronto.ca) <https://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/Connect/Rotman-MAG/IdeaExchange/Jennifer-Berdahl>.

3 Leary, T. G., Green, R., Denson, K., Schoenfeld, G., Henley, T., & Langford, H, “The relationship among dysfunctional leadership dispositions, employee engagement, job satisfaction, and burnout” (2013), 16:2 The Psychologist-Manager Journal 112-130. (Note: the article requires access here: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0094961)

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