HR Roundtable: Bad Behavior and What to Do About It

Feb 19, 2018
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

To kick off a new year, the (Cincinnati) HR Roundtable ventured into an area that is often mumbled about in hallways, but is rarely discussed in the open. Bad behavior. It’s amazing that all of the recent “discoveries” of people acting inappropriately is just now coming to light. It has been a factor that HR has had to work with forever. So, it was time to bring this discussion out for public comment. To get the small groups started, Steve posed the following questions.

  • Why is poor behavior ignored in the workplace?
  • When it comes to behavior, how “bad” is bad?
  • What steps, other than training, are needed?

The energy in the room jumped when the small groups started taking on the questions. It was hard to bring them back together, but when they did, they had great responses!

Why is poor behavior ignored in the workplace?

Employers (and HR) want to avoid conflict — The reason behavior is gossiped about in the halls is that it’s easier to do this than actually confront people. We hate it, and we’re not very good at confrontation when it occurs. This fear is daunting and can hold people back at all levels. This isn’t a supervisor/manager challenge. It’s an organization-wide problem that needs to be addressed consistently.

We allow “performers” slack — We need to be candid and honest about this. Very often when you have employees who bring in tons of business, or they’re deemed a “high potential,” they get much more latitude than the remainder of employees. This shouldn’t be the case, but the allure of those that create revenue is massive. Unfortunately, if someone is a fantastic performer and they exhibit poor behavior, it is excused. This can’t happen.

Fear of reprisal — This level of fear goes beyond the reluctance to have conflict. At times, organizations won’t act because of trepidation over potential legal action. Please note this . . . Ignoring poor behavior will be much costlier legally than any fear of reprisal will ever cost. You need to push through this and do what is right.

We don’t know how to address poor behavior — This is an unfortunate reality. Even though training is given by HR departmentally or individually, it never gives people the confidence to address poor behavior well. That is because you can’t account for every type of situation you may face. When people are concerned that they’ll fail at addressing someone, they will tend to not address them at all.

We become numb — If poor behavior is the “norm,” then we don’t even recognize it when it’s occurring. Don’t believe it? Think of your company and see if people curse, make off-handed comments, tell lewd/rude stories and people join in willingly. In fact, when people question whether these types of behaviors are appropriate, those practicing them will use peer pressure against those who object.

When it comes to behavior, how “bad” is bad?

It depends . . . — This answer may be more true than other topics we’ve covered. It’s not an HR cop out to take this stance. On the contrary, behavior is situational. Therefore, all components and facets of a situation need to be assessed and reviewed before action is taken.

The eye of the beholder — The baseline rule of thumb when it comes to behavior is that if someone feels it’s inappropriate, then HR needs to review the complaint. No exceptions. This doesn’t mean that the worst possible outcome is going to occur, but it could. The key is to not disregard or diminish someone’s concern. ALL concerns should be reviewed. Don’t pick and choose.

The “creepy” factor — Too many HR practitioners try to make things black and white absolutes. It’s not possible. The majority of human interactions is gray. It just is. One area that is often overlooked is that many behavior situations are just creepy. They may not be “end of the world” scenarios as everyone thinks. If you remember to look for the level of creepiness, then you can assess how severe something may/may not be.

What steps, other than training, are needed?

Training is needed — I didn’t want to have you think that this section thought training wasn’t needed. It is. However, we need to do so much more than provide training. This is the baseline that should happen in every organization. It can’t just be the HR “go to” answer though. Training is only the beginning.

Provide a safe environment and be the safe haven — All HR pros should be the safe haven of their company. That means that any employee at any level can openly talk with HR for any reason. There are no taboo topics, and HR promises not to lose their mind and overreact. If you establish this as an expectation of your HR efforts, you’ll be far ahead of most companies.

Have the difficult conversations — No one relished this. However, the constant avoidance of the conversation EVERYONE knows should occur, is much worse than the actual conversation. HR needs to be consistent in having these conversations themselves as well as coach others on how to do this well themselves.

Stop selective enforcement — Bad behavior is bad behavior. You title and level of position does not give you a pass to do what you’d like. HR can’t be effective if it isn’t consistent. This may be difficult to push against internal forces, but you need to press through. Trust me that when you do, you’ll have more respect and credibility.

Stop “macro” HR — We need to get out of the one size fits all mentality. Even though you have policies and procedures that are to be followed throughout the organization, each situation still needs to be considered within that framework. It may feel that this is being inconsistent, but it isn’t. Practicing HR on an individual basis works. It may take more concerted time and effort, but the resulting culture is worth it.

We couldn’t have started 2018 in a better way. It’s always great to have in-depth dialogue on HR topics. When you do, you learn more and hear perspectives that may differ from your own. For this reason alone, I’d encourage you to make the time to attend the HR Roundtable on a regular basis. The Roundtable is better when YOU attend because we get to hear your viewpoint. I hope you make a concerted effort to be a part of this forum throughout the year.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.