Find your new career TODAY!

How Do You Respond To Bad Behavior In The Workplace?


by Larry Sternberg, President at Talent Plus, Inc.

This might look like a very straightforward topic at first. “Larry, this isn’t even worthy of discussion.  Bad behavior should be punished. End of story.” It turns out to be a much more challenging topic than it might appear. That’s because you, as a leader, have to answer two questions:

  1. Was the behavior undesirable (bad)?
  3. What should the consequences be?

First, it’s important to understand that what counts as bad behavior in one culture might well be characterized as perfectly acceptable in another. For instance, in some organizations being late to meetings is considered disrespectful toward the other participants, and therefore bad. But in other organizations not being on time to meetings is routinely tolerated.

It’s vitally important to understand that the stated values of the organization are not the actual values. One learns the actual values of an organization by observation. What behaviors are rewarded? What behaviors are condemned and punished? What behaviors are ignored? Ultimately leaders, through their power, determine the organization’s official answers to these questions.

To further complicate matters, it’s also important to understand that the all of this is a moving target. The answers to these questions evolve over time. In every community of people, there’s frequent discussion — judgmental discussion — about the behavior of others. This is how a community confirms and adjusts its written and unwritten code of behavior. Right now, for instance, our standards for the use of mobile devices and computers in meetings is in flux. Is it rude to check emails and texts during a meeting? Is it OK in some meetings, but not in others? In situations where it’s not OK, how should the organization respond?

As a leader, you’re accountable to determine the final answers to these questions. I stand for struggling to arrive at the answer that’s appropriate for each individual situation. This is difficult. I’d certainly tolerate my number one salesperson being late to meetings even if our culture labeled that behavior as disrespectful. But I wouldn’t tolerate disrespect in the form of racial slurs. Somewhere between those two situations there’s a line, but I can’t tell you exactly where it is.

No matter where the line is, there are some behaviors that should be treated with zero tolerance. Recently we’ve seen situations in which egregious behaviors have become institutionalized. Here are some examples. In certain organizations rapes are not properly investigated nor are the rapists held accountable. Known product defects causing injury, illness and death are covered up. Corners are cut on safety practices in order to reduce costs. Child abuse is tolerated and known abusers are not held accountable. Bribery is tolerated in order to achieve business goals.

Those kinds of institutionalized, intolerable behaviors can only occur in a culture where the leader has somehow established that those behaviors are OK. If unacceptable behaviors are routinely occurring under your watch, it’s your fault. Even if you’re not aware of the actual behaviors, you’ve somehow communicated that they’re OK. It has become part of your culture.

More oversight is not the answer to reducing bad behavior. As a leader, you should be proactive. You should make honesty and integrity absolute tickets to admission for all employees and especially for leaders. You should make strong and clear statements about the organization’s commitment to doing the right things right. You should walk your talk. When someone exhibits zero tolerance behaviors you should take swift and unequivocal action to hold them accountable. You should make it easy and safe for people to blow the whistle and you should reward them.

In order to minimize bad behavior, select people with impeccable honesty and integrity. Clarify what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. Tailor the consequences of unacceptable behavior to the person and the situation. Clarify what behaviors are in the zero tolerance zone and act rapidly to punish people who behave in those ways. And finally, reward those who bring bad behavior to light. If you do this effectively, bad behavior will occur occasionally, but it won’t become institutionalized.

Thanks to Jessica McMullen for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Previous Page