Addressing Inappropriate Professional Conduct

1-professional-behaviorI continue to have coaching clients who are challenged in their efforts to manage and supervise certain employees, especially newer and younger employees.  The issue is rarely the person’s job performance but more often an inability or unwillingness to observe common workplace norms of appropriate professional conduct.  Examples include employees who:

  • Are unaware of or care little about norms of professional behavior in meetings as evidenced by their distracting and distracted use of mobile devices and laptops
  • Push ethical boundaries, such as trying to inappropriately delegate a portion of their work to co-workers or seeking reimbursement for illegitimate travel or other expenses
  • Use indirect communication like email or texts with a supervisor when face-to-face or phone conversation would clearly be more appropriate
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time while at work on social media and surfing the web
  • Are rude, abrasive, passively aggressive or even openly hostile in their interactions with others
  • Repeatedly seem not to know what “business casual” means in terms of workplace attire

My contention is that managers are sometimes unable to supervise their way out of personnel situations like these, because supervision alone can’t correct the underlying problem of the employee’s lack of awareness or inattention to expectations regarding workplace conduct.  In these situations it’s critical to examine the degree to which norms of professional conduct are manifested in an organization’s climate.

Norms are values that have been translated into agreements about how we will behave with one another in an organization.  These agreements are usually implicit expectations in most workplaces and we assume that others would simply know these agreements based on past work experience, education and observation.  When a noticeable or growing proportion of people in a work organization seem unaware of the norms for professional conduct, it’s time to make these norms more explicit.  The best strategy is develop more explicit agreements about professional conduct and embed information about these norms throughout ongoing communications and interactions throughout the organization.

One very effective approach is to create engagement agreements that spell out how people will behave with each other at work.  Engagement agreements also include a provision that everyone will hold one another accountable for living up to these agreements.  Engagement agreements are used in meetings to prohibit use of electronic devices, in senior management teams to establish norms of collegial behavior, and even organization-wide as a guide for all employees.  To be effective, engagement agreements need to be developed by those who will abide by them rather than imposed from above.  Engagement agreements are also revisited periodically, especially when there are new hires, or to see if any revisions are needed.

A complementary approach is to increase the degree of alignment regarding messaging about professional conduct in all the communications and processes that bring employees into an organization, are provided once they are hired, and continue throughout their employment:

  • Are topics like positive professional conduct included in recruiting communications, job advertisements and position description qualifications?
  • Do interview questions or reference checks probe on issues of professional conduct or present an organization’s engagement agreements?
  • Are professional conduct and engagement agreements explicitly covered in face-to-face orientation sessions for new hires as well as in employee handbooks?
  •  Are an employee’s professional conduct and adherence to engagement agreements reviewed in personnel evaluations?
  • If employees are publicly recognized for their achievements, is exemplary professional conduct included?
  • Is there an explicit expectation that promotions require a high standard of professional conduct in addition to excellent performance?
  • Are there ongoing professional development opportunities regarding professional conduct?
  • Is the development and use of engagement agreements itself normative, e.g. part of creating new work and project teams, as well as new external partnerships and collaborations?

Another complementary approach is the use of 360 developmental  assessments to identify employees’ strengths and developmental opportunities prior to coaching.  These assessments are based on confidential interviews with direct reports, peers and bosses and typically result in revealing perspectives regarding an employee’s strengths and shortcomings in professional conduct.  As an increasing number of employees in an organization participate in 360 assessments, both in the employee role and as interviewees, the overall quality of professional conduct usually improves, due to the continued discussion of these issues and feedback to those needing improvement.

And finally, what is the organization’s leadership communicating about professional conduct and how?  Is messaging about professional conduct an frequent element of communication and presentations by leadership?  Does the organization’s leadership communicate in both word and deed about the value of engagement agreements and the importance of appropriate professional conduct?

How can you tell that if taking steps like those mentioned above are improving professional conduct in your organization?  There is only one reliable approach.  Before making any changes, utilize a professionally-developed and administered climate survey.  This survey asks employees directly about what types of behaviors they observe taking place and what behaviors they experience directly in the realm of professional conduct.  The survey results will provide a benchmark about the level of professional conduct and also indicate areas most needing improvement.  After making initial changes aimed at improving professional conduct, readminister the same survey periodically on a one or two year cycle.  The results will let you know where your organization has improved professional conduct and not, and allow for the quality of professional conduct to be tracked over time.

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