No one wants to be around my next-door neighbor Georges’ dog. As George does not have the heart to correct Cotton’s annoying behavior, the dog jumps on people as well as furniture. Not until Cotton snuck unseen onto the dining room table following a dinner party was George forced to pay attention to the dog’s inappropriate and unwanted behaviors. It was nearly too late for Cotton. By the time the dog was discovered, he had grazed through the raisin noodle kugel and brisket, ingesting potentially lethal food. An emergency trip to the animal hospital resulted in Cotton having his stomach pumped and George burdened with a very expensive lesson; ignoring problem behaviors today may lead to dreadful consequences tomorrow.
It happens with pets, and it happens with children. In families where parents avoid confronting problematic behaviors of young children, they often grow up to be disrespectful and unruly adults in the workplace.
Confrontation about a subordinate’s behavior is not easy. However, it is necessary because wishful thinking, denial or avoidance by the employer in addressing unacceptable behaviors will result in problem behaviors going unchecked. In short order additional problems will abound in the office. While office behavioral problems will likely never rise to the extent that a staff member needs to have his or her stomach pumped like Cotton the dog, a toxic work environment can develop. Unhealthy staff behaviors are contagious, toxic and may result in office morale and efficiency taking a dive.
Before you initiate conversations with staff about their behavior, employers or managers may want to consult with Human Resources (HR), as it is their job to be on top of regulatory and legal issues. Some smaller employers do not have HR as a resource. In these situations, employers need to be prepared to address a broad range of uncomfortable and challenging issues that typically fall into the categories of attire, language, personal hygiene, physical contact, attitude, punctuality, interpersonal clashes, and sexual harassment or boundary conflicts.
Proper management requires providing necessary feedback. The manager with the closest relationship with the employee should address the problem. This can reduce the likelihood of the employee feeling threatened. In no situation should you ever ask a co-worker of the employee to communicate this message. Triangling in a third person unfairly puts their relationship in jeopardy, increases the possibility that the message is incorrectly transmitted, and risks exacerbating the problem.
Before the meeting, consider the purpose for talking with your staff member, and recognize that effective communication will involve understanding the needs of the person with whom you are talking and if any cultural differences exist.
We need to understand our subconscious needs as well. Sometimes we sabotage our conversations because we are unaware of how our emotions are impacting on our body language, and we end up sending mixed messages. Use your body language to show acceptance of the person. After all, remember you are rejecting the behavior, not the person. Your body language such as facial expressions and gestures matter at times like these, because they help communicate our feelings. We want our body language to support our message, rather than distract or undermine what we are attempting to accomplish. Arms folded against your chest tend to be viewed as distancing and cold. Pacing will be interpreted as nervous or distrustful behavior. Maintaining eye contact but not staring conveys self-confidence and respect for the other person. Being aware of your hands and not touching the other person or pointing your finger, conveys respect.
The tone and volume of your voice can impact the credibility of your message as well. Keep the tone of your voice from rising to prevent the discussion from escalating, as the other person will not feel a need to speak louder than you to be heard, possibly ending in a shouting match. Talk purposefully and deliberately to send the message that you have confidence in what you are saying, thereby lending more credibility to your discussion and keeping the discussion focused on your agenda.
Communicate with the employee in the same manner you would hope to be addressed if your positions were reversed. Set a tone of concern and respect by addressing the problem behavior in your office behind closed doors. Describe the issue and provide facts without judgment or emotion. If you convey negative emotions, the employee may react defensively, and the discussion may escalate in a non-constructive manner. Sometimes when people are uncomfortable with describing issues, they come across as hesitant and apologetic. It may help you increase your confidence by role-playing what you plan to say either in front of a mirror or with someone outside of the office.
Only address the issue with your staff member if you can back it up with unambiguous facts. This helps you reduce obstacles to understanding and compliance. Without facts, the person may deny or minimize the event or problem. Also, if the other person doesn’t have a clear appreciation of the issue, the possibility exists for a repeat of the problem.
Your job is to identify the problem behavior and clarify what is expected. It is ideal if the employee owns responsibility for the unacceptable behavior, but even if the person denies the accusations, he or she will have already been informed it is unacceptable.
Referring to the office employee handbook, which hopefully provides guidelines on topics such as attire, hygiene, demeanor, vacation, personal time and discrimination, can help employees know what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable. These written office rules can contribute to minimizing the employee feeling your conversation was unfair or a personal attack.
Don’t be surprised if the employee is unaware that the behavior was unacceptable. Sometimes employees have been engaged in a problem behavior for quite some time, and former employers chose to ignore rather than confront the conduct. The way your feedback is presented can provide helpful insight. For example, consider the employee with punctuality issues, such as arriving late. Rather than merely pointing out that you expect the employee to be at work by 9:00 am, not 9:15 am, provide what I call ‘the back story.’ Explain how that brief 15-minute tardiness impacts on the rest of the office staff. What phones go unanswered? Who in the office is waiting an extra quarter hour for lab results? What would it do to the office if everyone came in 15 minutes late? By doing so, you are helping the person see the bigger picture, and thereby secure compliance with the rules.
Most of us have negative memories of being reproached by an authority figure for unacceptable behavior. Perhaps it was our teacher, sports coach, or parent. To avoid the staff member feeling reduced to a similar child-adult relationship with you, don’t belabor the issue. Briefly, state your observation, and let the person know you have concern for why he or she engaged in that activity. It may be that the new problem behavior is a symptom of a difficulty the employee is experiencing elsewhere in his or her life. Gentle conversation can ferret out the cause of the behavioral problem. For example, if the employee’s problem involves poor personal hygiene, you may need to consider any cultural issues and explain local sensitivities and expectations. Or, you may discover that the employee is depressed or overwhelmed by an event in his or her personal life, and having difficulty coping.
Offenses such as sexual harassment and racial slurs should not be communicated informally and depending on the setting, may need to be escalated based on governing policies and guidelines. All incidents should be documented in the employee’s records so that if they occur again, the supervisor can help the employee recall the specific date in which it was previously addressed.
Much as an employee may want to change, knowledge alone isn’t always sufficient to alter a behavior. Providing appropriate ways to handle problematic behaviors will empower the employee to make positive changes. Human Resources, if available, can help with follow-up and referrals, such as for psychotherapy or life coaching. For remote offices with limited community resources, life coaching is an option commonly available via telephone, with the coach living in a different city from the client. If you are still feeling hesitant in addressing problem behavior, consider your feedback to employees with problematic behavior as a gift. Ignoring these awkward staff issues can negatively impact the employee’s career advancement. Having these conversations can truly be a win-win for the staff, management, and any clients or patients served. You are giving information that may be beneficial to them for many years in future social and business situations. For your office, deciding to not ignore problem staff issues can positively affect overall productivity.