Behavior Issues or Climate Issues?

1-workplaceconflict3Many leaders seek out a leadership coach because of concerns about how to address the behavior of peers, direct reports or even broader patterns of negative behavior within their organization. These concerns can be about job performance but more often center on personal behavior that is unprofessional, conflictual, disrespectful, or disruptive.

While a leader’s challenges with peers and direct reports may be seen as conflicts between individual styles and personalities, they may also reflect a workplace climate needing improvement. Many of my clients have had continuing challenges addressing negative behavior on the part of employees. The following are typical examples:

  • One female employee continues to push every boundary imaginable, asking to be reimbursed for inappropriate expenditures, failing to observe expected work hours, and doing online college coursework while at work.
  • A male employee repeatedly fails to abide by the business casual dress code of an office and other professional norms such as turning off his cell phone when in meetings.
  • A new male employee in his thirties who recently received his PhD is persistent about requests to be allowed to work at home so he can be with his dog.
  • A female employee inappropriately delegates some of her work on to lower status clerical workers who have a difficult time objecting,
  • A new member of a senior management team agrees in public to the team’s explicit norms regarding their behavior with each other, but persistently violates them when behind closed doors.

While supervisors’ conversations with these employees can improve their behavior in the short term, other, similar breaches of common workplace conventions often continue to surface later on. These instances highlight a growing problem: that some employees seem to be either unaware of or inattentive to workplace norms regarding professional demeanor and appropriate workplace behavior.

The causes of unprofessional and inappropriate behavior can be seen on a continuum. At one end, unprofessional behavior can be seen as an individual shortcoming to be corrected through supervision and feedback. In the middle of the spectrum the cause may be the organization’s shortcomings in communicating its desired norms for workplace behavior. At other end of the spectrum, the cause may be a workplace climate that allows or even encourages inappropriate behavior. In most cases, the roots of unprofessional or inappropriate behavior often lie all along this continuum.

Consider the entry experience of new employees. Most workplaces have an employee handbook that spells out more serious violations such as conflict of interest or sexual harassment and other discriminatory behavior.  These handbooks also often articulate softer expectations for professional behavior, timeliness, a respectful workplace, and so on. In my experience it is common for new employees to be required to sign a statement that they have received and read the handbook, though in fact few new employees actually read the document.  Similarly, existing employees rarely read revisions to an employee manual.

Worse yet, new employee orientations typically address topics like payroll, benefits and legal issues like sexual harassment, but little time if any is given to discussions of expected workplace behavior and professional conduct. In my experience, many new, especially younger, employees are not familiar with an organization’s prevailing expectations for workplace and professional behavior. Furthermore, the lack of attention to expected workplace behavior often starts in the interviewing process. Interviewers and search committee members always ask applicants about experience, skills, background, etc., but rarely ask about their sense of appropriate workplace and professional behavior and how they would respond to such a situation in which these norms are violated.

Trying to solve issues of inappropriate or unprofessional behavior by more frequent supervision and feedback often fails get to the root cause: that the norms of professional conduct have not been adequately articulated or successfully communicated to employees. There are several strategies that can improve this situation, many of them used simultaneously:

  • Make sure you and your leadership team are deliberately modeling the behavior you expect from people throughout the organization; top level behavior  visibly at odds with expressed ideals will quickly cascade downward throughout an organization
  • Including the topics of professional and appropriate behavior in job interviews and calls to references
  • Checking to see what the existing employee manual communicates about professional and appropriate behavior, and revising it if necessary
  • Making sure that HR and organizational leaders provide orientations to new employees and ongoing professional development that covers these topics and references the employee handbook
  • Assuring that the personnel evaluation process covers these topics in a way that allows both strengths and opportunities for improvement to be noted
  • Adding a component to the personnel evaluation process in which people working closely with the employee are asked to comment on both the person’s performance and behavior
  • Facilitating a discussion of desired “Engagement Agreements” by team or work group members to explicitly agree on norms for meetings (arrive on time, cell phones off, etc.) and their behavior with each other (respect others, direct communication, invite feedback, agreement about how to hold each other accountable, etc.)
  • Larger organizations often commission periodic climate surveys of all employees that ask direct questions about how often they experience and observe behaviors that enhance or detract from a positive workplace climate; the results are shared with employees, areas of needed improvement are identified, strategies for improvement are implemented, and progress is assessed in subsequent surveys.