HR Manages Little Things That Drive Employees Crazy

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Aug 17, 2010
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The little things that happen at work—like the employee who stores open containers of cat food in the office refrigerator—can drive employees crazy. That’s why HR professionals must be equipped to manage a vast, constantly changing universe of scenarios, ranging from the bizarre to the mundane.

According to postings on the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Talk bulletin board, HR professionals were dealing with a number of mini-dramas in mid-2010, such as employees who:

  • Complained about the distance between their desks and the water cooler.
  • Used their hands, rather than a spoon, to retrieve unwrapped candy from a candy jar.
  • Defaced bathroom stalls.
  • Opened an umbrella at their desk to block cold air.
  • “Missed” the urinals.

Experts say communal areas, such as the office break room or copy room, create ample opportunities for annoying behavior.

Forty-four percent of 432 U.S.-based office workers surveyed by the staffing company OfficeTeam in July 2010 said that leaving a mess for others to clean up tops the list of annoying break room behavior. Stealing a co-worker’s food came in second, at 19 percent, followed by leaving spoiled items in the refrigerator, at 18 percent.

“Many people believe their actions in the break room go unnoticed, but subtle behaviors can send a message about an individual’s consideration for others,” said OfficeTeam executive director Robert Hosking. “Leaving messes in a common area will have colleagues wondering whether you’re just as careless in other aspects of the job.”

Yet there are plenty of things, in and out of the break room, that employees do that get on other people’s nerves, he said, such as:

  • Emptying the coffee pot, water cooler jug or printer paper tray and not refilling it.
  • Storing a week’s worth of groceries in the office refrigerator.
  • Taking half a cookie or piece of cake and leaving the rest behind.
  • Blasting music in an open work space and singing along to favorite tunes.
  • Clicking pens, tapping fingers and chewing gum loudly.
  • Sharing too much information by gossiping loudly or having a deeply personal cell phone conversation in a common area.
  • Failing to silence cell phone ringtones.
  • Wearing too much cologne or perfume.
  • Appearing to be unavailable by wearing a wireless earpiece or headphones.

“I've had to ask men not to pee on the toilet seat in a shared bathroom,” said Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and founder of The Krysalis Group, an HR and management consultancy, who has tackled many other such situations such as employees with bad breath, those who wear inappropriate attire and even one employee who washed his clothes at work after having been told he had a body odor problem.

“Many workplace annoyances can be trivial, but they should be addressed before they become major disturbances to others,” Hosking told SHRM Online.

“Employees who display rude behaviors may be perceived by their colleagues as inconsiderate or unprofessional, and this could damage their relationships with co-workers,” Hosking noted. And, because most people spend more time with their colleagues than anyone else, he said, it’s important to keep such relationships positive.

Hosking said HR professionals can take a number of steps to anticipate and address problematic behaviors, such as:

  • Creating policies regarding workplace expectations, explaining them to employees and ensuring that managers are available to answer any questions.
  • Highlighting such policies during employee orientation.
  • Holding a meeting or posting reminder notices, when issues arise, to reinforce the rules of conduct.
  • Maintaining an open door policy, and recommending that managers do the same, so that workers feel comfortable voicing concerns before they balloon into larger issues.

“If an HR professional feels that an employee is displaying poor workplace behavior, he or she should take the individual aside to discuss the matter and offer specific tips for improving the situation,” Hosking added. “Rather than dwelling on the other person’s habits and traits, articulate your needs and identify any problematic aspects of their behavior. Talk about what could be accomplished if things were different.”

“Inappropriate behaviors should be dealt with immediately (or as soon as possible) and consistently,” said Terry E. Henley, CCP, SPHR, director of compensation services for the Employers Resource Association. “The road to failure is littered with management reaction to infractions that either is inconsistent or nonexistent.”

Flagg agreed, and said that HR professionals need to confront employees at times like these, state the problem and make it clear that the behavior needs to stop. “We tend to make these conversations so much harder and more complicated than they need to be,” she told SHRM Online. “Just dive in and don’t be afraid. … Don’t read into it or let your emotions get involved.”

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

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