Bad Behavior at Work? Best Defense is to Prevent it in the First Place

Have our workplace leaders just lost it?

That’s the question that comes to my mind after a string of recent stories involving Navy Captain Owen Honors, NFL quarterback Brett Favre, ESPN sportscaster Ron Franklin, and other public figures whose workplace acts have caught our attention.

Are these scandals coming to light now due to:

a) the recession?

b) globalization?

c) the nonstop pace of our lives and the news cycle?

d) some cosmic alignment of the stars and planets suddenly turning prominent professionals into out-of-control adolescents?

e) none of the above.

If this were a multiple choice quiz, I’d answer e) none of the above.

In the past, some powerful rebuttals

On the-job-sexual advances, nutty comments, offensive touching, harassing and demeaning jokes have been in the workplace way before 2010. Technology has just made this behavior easier to prove and publicize, while dramatically increasing the reputational risks for individuals and organizational brands.

In the past, those offended often could not readily convince others they had actually experienced out-of-bounds and outrageous conduct., saying things like: “It didn’t happen.” “It’s his or her word against mine.” “I didn’t say or do that and besides it’s completely out of context.”It’s not fair to blame me.”

These have all been powerful rebuttals, especially when the leader has been prominent, revered, or a big shot – as I wrote about in my bookTeaching Big Shots to Behave (and other Human Resources Challenges).

In the past, these individuals could launch well financed legal and public relations counter attacks. However, now it’s much harder, even virtually impossible, to defend against or minimize e-mails, texts, voice mails, videos and other electronically valid footprints in the form of videos, e-mails or text messages. That’s exactly the kind of evidence we read and hear about all the time now.

Until recently, most lawsuits have had a quick and forgettable “shelf life.” Lawyers may have passed around especially salty complaints and sometimes stories appeared briefly in newspapers or on television. Now, any claimant with help from his lawyer, publicist or social media guru, can instantly reach the same audience as the The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal combined.

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A different game today

Today, these claims live on virtually forever in the public eye, easily accessible to anyone with a simple Google search. For these reasons, public relations disasters and brand damage are of hugely elevated concern. Let the defendant see what’s in store and gauge the potential impact on his or her family and business reputation, and you have a recipe for a quick and generous payout before a lawsuit is ever filed.

While bias claims and other employment claims are on the rise, I suspect that the truly astounding statistics would be the increase in settlements that we don’t hear about.

For HR professionals, legal counsel, and individuals who anguish over whether or not to settle threatened claims, I’ll bet their concerns over public relations disasters and brand damage trumped their worry over the potential legal damages that might be awarded.

Since technology won’t be disappearing any time soon, what’s the answer for employers and the rest of us? This is a question that I’ll take up this year at The Conference Board seminar, “Building an Ethical and High-Performance Workplace through Effective Behaviors” and at my session in June at the 63rd SHRM Annual Conference in Las Vegas titled Strictly Business: What’s Compliance and Inclusion Got to Do with Me?” Workplace behavior is also a topic that comes up frequently in our meetings and training sessions with executives, HR professionals, and managers.

The best defense to follow

But the short answer here is that leaders and HR executives must assure that organizational standards of workplace behavior are followed. Not breaking the law is critical. But just doing that alone is too modest a shield to protect careers and reputations from damage.

With the balance of power shifted, some individuals will try to create their own evidence to take advantage of the new leverage they can exert against their organizations ,and especially highly placed public leaders. At some point, there needs to be a stronger recourse for those who have been unfairly charged with acts they did not commit.

And at some point, the legal system will have to devise ways to protect innocent parties from the long-lasting harm that false and globally spread accusations can cause. Otherwise, we’ll just all have to learn not to believe everything we read unless supported by certified e-mail, voice mail, video, text message, or other other proof.

Until then, the best defense to claims of outrageous behavior is to prevent them in the first place rather than hope that claims won’t be pursued or will just go away quietly.

Stephen Paskoff  writes frequently about how to build a civil workplace on his blog at www.eliinc.com.

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI® eliinc.com, an Atlanta-based training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase employee contribution, build respectful and inclusive cultures, and reduce legal and ethical risk. Contact him at info@eliinc.com.

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