Employee morale, productivity and customer service levels are at their highest when employees work effectively as a team and practice basic tenets of civility and respect for each other. This, unfortunately, is not always the case when employees display inappropriate and disruptive behaviors. Behavior that is not consistent with basic collegial and professional expectations can result in significant negative consequences to the organization and its people and can increase an organization's potential legal liability.
It is important to note that employers may not restrict an employee's right to concerted, protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which at times, might involve some disruptive behaviors. Any conduct-related policy should be legally reviewed to ensure that employees feel free to exercise their rights under Section 7 of the act.
This toolkit looks at some of the most common types of difficult and disruptive employee behaviors, identifies the potential risks to the organization if the behavior is not corrected, and offers suggestions for constructively managing the performance of individuals exhibiting these behaviors in the workplace.
Types of Problem Employee Behaviors
There is a wide range of behaviors exhibited by employees that can create risks for other individuals and the organization. Some general categories and examples include:
- Gossiping. While it tends to have both harmless and vicious connotations, gossiping generally refers to the actions of an individual who habitually reveals personal or sensational information about others, whether factual or not. Examples include speculating on the cause of a co-worker's divorce, repeating and embellishing overheard conversations meant to be private, and creating or repeating rumors about individuals or the company meant to be stirring or shocking.
- Displaying general incivility/insolence. This includes engaging in rude, disrespectful speech or behaviors and physical intimidation, such as making insulting and demeaning statements; using angry, hostile tones; berating staff and colleagues in front of others; and shouting, throwing things or slamming doors when displeased. These behaviors are often directed at anyone the employee disagrees with or is agitated by. Exceptions may need to be made while an employee exercises their lawful right to protected concerted activity.
- Bullying. While bullying certainly can include uncivil behaviors, bullies often use less visible means of harming other employees, such as social isolation, condescending or contemptuous communications, and manipulation. Bullying is often directed at specific individuals, characterized by persistent abusive and intimidating behavior or unfair actions (assigning too much work, constantly changing deadlines, poor performance ratings, etc.), causing the recipient to feel threatened, abused, humiliated or vulnerable. Bullying is about having power over someone else—often a direct report, but also anyone who may seem weaker to the bully.
- Exhibiting insubordination. Insubordination refers to an employee's intentional refusal to obey an employer's lawful and reasonable orders. This can manifest as a single event worthy of discipline or termination or as a series of lesser events that work to undermine a supervisor's authority over time. Examples of the latter include repeated warnings to reduce hostile remarks in meetings or to reduce harmful gossiping about other employees that go unheeded. See What constitutes insubordination?
The impact of disruptive behaviors on an organization are far ranging: Decreases in productivity, performance, employee commitment and company reputation will all affect the bottom line, as will increases in turnover costs, use of sick leave, disability claims and legal expenses.
Moreover, toxic behaviors spread like viruses. The problem may start with one person behaving badly, but over time, the people who work around disruptive individuals may begin to behave differently and to believe the organization has a high tolerance for such misbehavior.
Findings from a 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found the following:
- 19% of U.S. workers are bullied, and another 19% witness it.
- 61% of U.S. workers are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace.
- 70% of perpetrators are men, and 60% of targets are women.
- 61% of bullies are bosses, and the majority (63%) operate alone.
- 40% of bullied targets are believed to experience adverse health effects.
- To make the bullying stop, 65% of targets leave their jobs.
With over 60 percent of the offenders having a higher job status than the target, this a problem that must be addressed from the top down. See Are You in a Bully-Prone Industry? and The Bully and the Bottom Line.
Employee use of social media adds another layer of concern for employers, as employees may bully or be uncivil to one another on social networking sites. In addition, postings that portray the employer in a negative light may go viral, damaging an employer's reputation and brand. Employers may not always know about such postings, but when they become aware, they need to act. See What HR Can Do About Cyberbullying in the Workplace.
HR professionals can play an integral role in providing guidance and training to managers with difficult employees. HR should adopt the role of business partner and help managers look at the presenting issue and uncover the underlying issue. A critical step is getting the manager to recognize that a problem exists. Managers often avoid dealing with interpersonal issues because these problems can be very difficult to resolve. HR professionals can assist managers in identifying problems and strategizing possible solutions. Employers should ensure that conflicts are resolved early on as part of an overall organizational strategy to prevent workplace violence from occurring.
Managers and colleagues are often unwilling to intervene or complain about a disruptive colleague. Co-workers may fear retribution or that the negative behaviors will intensify if they speak up. Managers can be reluctant to have these difficult conversations with employees and are often unprepared to address these behaviors in ways that might bring about positive changes. Additionally, those who manage departments that are short-staffed are often reluctant to do anything that might lead to the loss of an otherwise contributing staff member.
Taking action requires courage that many employees and managers may not have. They rationalize their inaction with logic like:
- Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
- Perhaps I will be relocated or promoted soon and the next person can deal with this.
- Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
- We have found viable workaround measures.
- We have bigger problems. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from critical work.
Unfortunately, the problem will not usually go away if it is tolerated or ignored; in fact, it will likely worsen. The disruptive individual may interpret a manager's tolerance of inappropriate behavior as accepting or condoning the behavior, which then may escalate.
Managers may be enabling a problem employee if:
Managers have an ethical and sometimes legal obligation to investigate complaints or other evidence of bad behavior and to prevent its reoccurrence by taking prompt, appropriate remedial action. If the employer ignores the problem, it runs the risk of condoning unprofessional behavior and becomes vulnerable to potential legal liability.
Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Employees and Disruptive Behaviors
Many employees are promoted into people manager roles without any training whatsoever, leaving them unprepared to navigate a path to reduce or eliminate disruptive behaviors when they appear. The difficult employees themselves may have never acquired the appropriate social skills to interact at a professional level and to work as a productive member of a team.
Preventive, ongoing training can lay the groundwork for employees to understand their behavioral expectations and for managers to be prepared to act when employees fall short of those expectations. Basic training in people management and conflict resolution is a good starting place. Many organizations offer in-house or outsourced people management programs, some of which include 360-degree assessments that help to gauge where the manager's people skills may need development. Providing your managers with support, including the tools they need to succeed, will help them feel more confident when confronted with difficult employees.
Facilitating meaningful teamwork activities can also build better understanding between co-workers. Some employers use workplace personality testing modules to help employees recognize they may have different work styles and different tendencies in how they interact with others. Often, this realization of how one's own style and tendencies are just as valid as someone else's opposite style and tendencies can go a long way to diffuse formerly frustrating interactions.
More companies are now including civility training for all employees, which can include business etiquette, cultural sensitivity and diversity awareness components. Training should not only define civility and list the employer's expectations (as allowable under the NLRA), it should teach what civility looks like and describe or act out scenarios ripe for incivility, giving participants the chance to practice how to maintain composure instead of acting out. Microsoft's Precision Questioning class teaches participants to question their own ideas and how to have effective and efficient discussions. The Department of Labor offers two prevention programs for employers, "Leading for Respect" and "Respect in the Workplace," which deal with civility, acceptable workplace conduct and behaviors that contribute to an inclusive workplace. See New EEOC Training Helps Employers Create Respectful Workplaces.
Take notice and listen
One of the main reasons employees engage in disruptive behaviors is because they don't feel they are being heard. When unacceptable behaviors appear, good managers will start to pay close attention to what is going on and not turn away from problems they'd rather ignore. Make note of specific behaviors to address, including when they were observed and who was present. Take time to collect information and understand the issue as fully as possible. Be sure to solicit the problematic employee's point of view; by doing so, managers often learn of something that is blocking the employee's progress and causing them stress, which can be addressed and resolved. Just being heard can also be a factor in de-escalating negative behaviors before they get out of control.
Provide honest feedback
The key to managing difficult or disruptive employees is to distinguish the person from his or her behaviors. Talk to the employee about the behaviors being unacceptable, but take care not to make any personal attacks on who the employee is as a person. Saying things like, "You're a troublemaker" or "You've got anger issues" are personal judgments that will put the employee on the defensive and hinder any productive exchange. Instead, focus on the behaviors by saying, "Your behaviors are effective here; they are not effective here." Give specific examples of when the employee was displaying the unacceptable behaviors so he or she doesn't have to guess. For example, "You've raised your voice three times in meetings in the last two weeks in response to a co-worker's legitimate, respectful question" or "I've heard you talk negatively about Joe and Sue to other employees" are specific to the behaviors that need to be addressed. Discuss appropriate behaviors with the employee, and ensure that he or she understands what is expected in the future. Don't make the mistake of thinking that good employees would instinctively know what to do to correct their behaviors or even that they would know their behaviors are problematic in the first place. See How to Give Feedback to People Who Cry, Yell, or Get Defensive.
Document and follow disciplinary policies
Employers tend to forget that job performance expectations include behavioral expectations. In doing so, managers may talk to employees about their disruptive behaviors, even several times, but never document the interactions. Then, if they reach a point where they want the employee fired, there's no record of what discussions took place and what clear expectations were set. It's understandable that managers hope the behaviors will go away, but when they don't, having the documentation in hand will support an employer's actions to discipline or terminate if the situation becomes untenable. Even if all other job goals are being met, a disruptive employee displaying toxic behaviors is engaging in an actionable offense.
Employees should be told the specific consequences of failure to improve their performance. If an employee will be discharged if no improvement is shown, the employee should be told precisely that. Mincing words or speaking in generalities to avoid difficult statements is unfair to the employee, who may be surprised that the consequences are harsher than expected. A fair notice would entail a conversation that is direct yet respectful. Ultimately, though, the employee has the responsibility to adjust his or her behavior to correct the problem.
Follow up with the employee
One of the most common mistakes managers make is to have the appropriate conversation with an employee, consider the matter closed and put away the file. The greatest factor in sustaining improvements in performance is follow-up. Improvements should be recognized, and employees should be held accountable for failures in not correcting the behavior. Nothing will affect the morale of other employees faster than watching unacceptable performance go unaddressed or, worse, be addressed and then tolerated, which suggests that the manager is incapable of dealing with the situation. Working with an employee, though, and giving him or her a chance to improve can also be an effective morale booster. See Insubordinate Employees May Deserve a Second Chance.
Many corporate codes of conduct and labor agreements contain requirements that employees and managers treat each other with dignity and respect and conduct themselves in a professional manner. In addition, most organizations have policies that prohibit harassment and discrimination, including actions that may lead to an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
One caveat to these conduct-related policies is to ensure that they do not interfere with Section 7 rights under the National Labor Relations Act, which allow employees to engage in protected, concerted activity regarding the terms and conditions of employment. The National Labor Relations Board has gone back and forth on how these policies must be worded; therefore, legal review of all current and any new conduct policies is recommended. See Companies Should Nail Down Precise Business Reasons for Workplace Policies.
When organizations communicate clear expectations and take appropriate actions, the workforce will be better able to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
The cost of workplace bullying and other disruptive employee behaviors can be measured in many ways. An organization can, for example, analyze the impact of these negative behaviors based on:
- Employee engagement.
- Commitment to the organization.
- Job satisfaction.
- Productivity levels.
- Work quality.
- Estimated number of lost work hours.
Legal risks are associated with confronting disruptive employees about their behavior. Federal and state employment laws protect employees from discrimination based on age, race, gender, national origin, religion, disability, and, in some states, marital status and sexual orientation. In addition, whistle-blower or retaliation protections and collective bargaining agreements can create some additional areas for legal concern.
When employees who belong to one or more of these protected classes face discipline, they may feel they are being treated differently than those employees who are not members of the same class. Keeping all disciplinary conversations focused on the employee's actual performance problem is important. Although discrimination and harassment laws prohibit employers from making employment decisions based on an employee's membership in a protected class, basing decisions on performance helps prevent even the appearance of a violation of these laws. Even if an employee feels he or she is the victim of discrimination or harassment, concentrating on performance helps maintain the focus on the true employment issues at hand, keeps the employer compliant, and shows respect for employees and their rights in the workplace.
Workplace bullying is inappropriate and unacceptable behavior, but it is not prohibited by federal law unless the basis for it is tied to a protected category, such as race or sex. Several states have introduced workplace anti-bullying bills in recent years and in 2019, Tennessee's Healthy Workplace Act, prohibiting workplace bullying that is not based on a protected category, was extended to include private employers.
Confronting Workplace Bullying
Conflict Resolution Training
Documenting Disciplinary Issues
Performance Improvement Plan (PIP #1)