What to Do When Employee Behavior Changes

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jun 3, 2011
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Everyone has a bad day occasionally. Yet when an employee suddenly begins to have a lot of bad days, or he or she displays behavior that seems odd or even alarming, it’s time for HR to take action, experts say.

“I was involved with an engineering team where one member decided to start humming randomly in meetings,” said Tony Deblauwe, founder of HR4Change and author of Tangling with Tyrants: Managing the Balance of Power at Work (HR4Change Press, 2009). “He would sigh and then hum, then stop.”

Deblauwe spoke to the employee about the humming and learned that his therapist suggested the employee hum to cope with the anxiety he felt prior to presenting a work update during team meetings. This conversation led the team to transition to shorter, more efficient meetings involving the use of brief, bulleted lists of updates, rather than long presentations, thus reducing the employee’s meeting-related anxiety, he said.

Jeff Gordon of www.IWantanEducation.com said he once worked with an employee who suddenly began muttering to himself. “We didn't think anything of it, but after a few days the muttering had gotten worse.

“There was no doubt that it needed to be addressed—and quickly,” he told SHRM Online. When the employee’s supervisor and an HR representative met with the employee to discuss the behavior, the employee apologized and said his psychiatrist had changed his medication recently. A few days of paid leave resolved the situation.

Jennifer L. Berman, SPHR, CEO and chief employee optimizer for OAU Consulting, a Chicago-area HR consultancy, said such situations are not uncommon. She described a female employee who had become very withdrawn and seemed depressed. A co-worker reported that the employee had obtained a restraining order against her husband and that he had left a threatening message on the employee’s voice mail. This disclosure made it possible for the company to take appropriate measures to protect the employee and workplace.

Although employers—and employees—face some risks by intervening, the risks they face from failing to act can be much greater.

Consider this example: According to news reports, the U.S. Senate, in its report about the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5. 2009, referred to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan,the military psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people that day, as “a ticking time bomb” and said that his sometimes erratic behavior had been ignored.

Safety First

Anyone who observes unusual employee behavior should report it promptly to management for action, said Douglas R. Burtch, an attorney with Macaulay & Burtch, P.C. in Richmond, Va., so that employers can ensure the safety and security of employees and guard against workplace violence.

“If an employee is exhibiting behavior that could be considered dangerous to themselves or others, or if the organization has a reasonable belief that the employee may be a target for violence that could enter the workplace, the organization should take whatever steps it can to notify authorities and ensure the safety of anyone on its premises,” Berman said.

Burtch said an employer should call the police immediately if an employee:

  • Makes an actual threat of violence to himself, an employee or a customer.
  • Refuses to return company property upon demand.
  • An employee should be placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a thorough investigation when:
  • They have made a veiled or vague threat of violence.
  • The nature of their behavior impacts their ability to be productive or effective on the job.

In such situations, “The employee should not be allowed to leave with any company property, and the employee's access to the company’s e-mail, server, systems and information should be shut down,” Burtch said.

As for calling an employee’s designated emergency contact person, “I would not recommend such notice for low-level behavior changes, such as an employee being withdrawn, impatient or difficult,” Berman said. Reserve such an action for emergencies.

In all other cases in which a manager suspects anything out of the ordinary, she or he should talk to the employee about it. “Being observant and alert is the best way to flag any potential workplace issue,” Burtch said.

“The time to deal with a potentially serious problem is when the issue is first noticed,” said Janet Flewelling, director of human resource operations for Insperity, a provider of HR and business performance solutions. “Never be accusatory or harsh; your goal isn’t to become their therapist. Simply explain your reason for the conversation is because you have noticed some changes and want to help.”

A Variety of Causes

Employee behavior can change for many reasons, experts note.

Bernie Dyme, president and CEO of Perspectives Ltd, a Chicago-based employee assistance program (EAP), pointed to internal events, such as rumors of a merger or acquisition, poor company performance, layoffs or downsizings, change of business location and even bad management, as well as external issues such as financial issues, traumatic events such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and perceived danger, as possible causes.

“Sometimes suspicious employee behavior is a sign of an employee's illegal actions, such as embezzlement, conversion or misappropriation of trade secrets,” said Burtch. Or it can be a sign that an employee plans to leave to join a competitor, possibly with proprietary information in hand.

“Signs that someone is grappling with serious problems typically include missed deadlines, unexplained absenteeism, tardiness, lack of energy, inability to focus and irritability or other mood changes,” said Flewelling. “While these behaviors may be work-related, they can also be signs of something entirely different.”

Avoid Assumptions

Don't assume an employee has “turned bad” just because they have a sudden change in behavior, said Donna M. Ballman, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based employment attorney. “They may have a problem that is legally protected.”

“Sometimes, these situations involve a medical issue or disability,” Burtch agreed. “In those instances, after any immediate safety risk is addressed—and that includes the safety of the employee acting strangely—management should ensure that it properly guards any medical information that has been shared and should also watch for any issues that may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or similar state statutes.”

“At no time should an employer attempt to diagnose the cause of an employee's behavior,” said Lisa Kainec, a shareholder at Kastner Westman & Wilkins, a management side labor and employment law firm in Akron, Ohio. Instead, the manager should deal directly with “job-related concerns, such as disruption to the workforce, discourteous or rude treatment of others, insubordination or refusal to perform job tasks,” she said.

Medical privacy laws, health privacy law and Americans with Disability Act requirements might be violated “if an employer, particularly a direct supervisor, tries to dig too deep into an employee’s personal issues,” Berman stated. “It is better to discuss [an employee’s] outbursts and their effect on the work environment or his interaction with customers and not on why this is happening, unless he offers it as a justification of his behavior.”

“Under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which greatly expanded the definitions of who is protected as disabled under federal law, employers are wise to seek legal guidance as they engage in the required interactive process with any employee whose medical condition interferes with their job-related abilities,” Kainec said. 

Managers must be careful not to disclose protected information, Ballman said, even if employees are aware of the change in behavior. “If there is a disability, the manager could be violating [medical privacy law] if any medical information is disclosed,” Ballman explained. 

Taking Action

If an employer decides that action must be taken to address an employee’s behavior at work, the action should be consistent with company policy, Berman said. The company should take “whatever disciplinary measures that it would utilize for any other behavior or performance issue, based on factors such as the employee’s tenure, record of performance, severity of the incident and past company practices for similar types of incidents/performance issues.”

“The company may consider a period of leave to figure out the situation, or even a fitness-for-duty evaluation,” Burtch said. 

“Employees on any medical leave, regardless of the cause, should only be returned to active duty with a release from an appropriate treatment provider,” Berman noted. “That release should specifically address whether the employee is ready to return to perform the job functions required and if any restrictions or accommodations are needed.

“This should not be any different for those on leave for treatment of mental health issues than for an employee returning from heart surgery,” she added.

Using Employee Assistance Programs

“If the employee’s behavior change is noticeable but not specifically dangerous to themselves or others, I would recommend a referral to the EAP, preferably by someone other than the employee’s immediate supervisor. HR is best,” Berman said.

EAPs are offered by many companies at no cost to employees, Flewelling noted. “They offer confidential counseling and referral plans to help employees deal with personal problems as well as work-related issues.” These can include financial or legal concerns, stress management, dealing with major life events or changes, health care concerns, work relationship issues and substance abuse, she explained.

Because of the wide range of services offered, the mere suggestion that an employee explore such services in no way suggests that the individual has a psychological disability that requires treatment, Dyme noted.

“Organizations can’t mandate that an employee use the EAP unless it is clearly defined in workplace policy and related to performance,” Dyme said, such as when use of an EAP is part of a ‘last chance agreement’ in which the employee has to fulfill certain conditions in order to remain employed. “Even then, organizations should work with legal counsel,” he cautioned.

If no EAP is available, the employee can be encouraged to seek services available through the organization’s insurance, Berman said.

Alternatively, Dyme suggested, build a relationship with an EAP that can help on an as-needed basis. “The trouble with that approach, however, is that the consultant may not know the work rules and understand the culture,” he said. “It’s better to be prepared ahead of time.”

The Co-worker’s Role

Experts agree that employees should be cautious before reaching out to a co-worker in distress. “You could become entwined in a situation much larger and more involved than you originally realized,” Flewelling said.

“If you aren’t comfortable approaching a co-worker, express your concerns with your supervisor or someone in human resources,” Flewelling said.

Employees should refrain from making such situations a matter for gossip.

Berman said a group of co-workers once decided to take matters into their own hands by confronting a male employee who had reportedly been stalking a female employee. When confronted, the accused employee became angry and threatening and was subsequently sent home by the company. He later called the female employee and threatened to commit suicide. The company took steps to mitigate the suicide risk and secure the workplace, but it took disciplinary action against the group of co-workers as well for overstepping their authority and failing to report the situation to HR.

That’s why employees should be encouraged to follow their employer’s practices for reporting problems and identifying issues.

“If you are concerned that the situation could become volatile and the well-being of the individual or others is jeopardized, you should seek assistance from your supervisor or HR immediately,” Flewelling added. “You cannot sit idly by and watch a co-worker hurt himself, cause a threat to others and/or damage the organization.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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