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Good Employee, Bad Behavior Part 1

Dealing with a single unacceptable incident

Good Employee, Bad Behavior Part 1

By Mark Swartz
Canadian Workplace Specialist

Suddenly Derek in Accounting, normally such a quiet, reliable guy, shouts out in the middle of an important meeting – with senior management on hand to boot – that he just can’t support the financial decisions being made that morning, as he rushes out of the room flushing red in the face. Later that day he taps on his boss’s door to sheepishly discuss the unprecedented outburst.

One day out of the blue Neva, your top producing salesperson, is a no show at a customer meeting where a major order was to be signed. No one knows where she is or what on earth happened. She calls early next morning to apologize profusely with a reasonable explanation, but some damage has been done.

Employees gone wild. Trusted staff members who, for one reason or another, blunder badly this one time. How do you deal with this such that you discourage similar behaviour from others, while maintaining a positive working relationship with the valued, though no longer 100% reliable, employee?

Confronting Delicately

These kinds of aberrant, unexpected actions by one of your better employees ought to be dealt with quickly. Likely the person has been experiencing something highly stressful that bears discussing. Or is having second thoughts about working for you but has not found a way to speak about this openly yet.
Having a meeting with the offending staffer and their supervisor, as soon as possible, is the way to go. Try to do this immediately after the incident, if at all possible. You don’t want to leave the employee stewing in their own juices, or making another big mistake.

Given that this is a first offence, your goal is to find out what the heck went wrong, in a supportive, understanding way. Approach the employee as follows:

• Conduct the conversation face to face, in private

• Start by pointing out that the person is a valued employee, you’re just attempting to find out what the cause of their behaviour is so that the appropriate support can be provided and actions taken if need be

• Attempt to make the meeting non-punitive (e.g. don’t strip the person of rank or privilege on the spot, hear them out instead)

• Listen carefully for underlying causes that you or HR might be able to address. Are there personal reasons at the core? Is something happening in the workplace that has boiled over?

• Reassure the employee that so long as this remains a one-time departure from their norm, the person’s job will not be in jeopardy

• Send them on their way with specific duties or assignments on which they can focus their efforts and calm down

Crime…And Punishment?

Should you penalize the employee for their odd behaviour? It could surely serve as a deterrent to that particular staffer and other employees as well. After all, who wants the workers to run amok and “act out” on company time?

But consider your response carefully. Reflexive punishment – tit for tat penalties regardless of extenuating circumstances – can also be seen as inhumane or brutish. Other employees may indeed think twice before they explode at work. They may also start looking for another job somewhere they can be treated as loyal but imperfectly human.

If you do choose to discipline the employee once you have heard them out, be sure to make the punishment fit the crime. Don’t come down so hard that you make the person feel a grave injustice has been done. Otherwise you might be lighting a fuse that leads to their eventual resignation, or to them subtly sabotaging the employer.

Don’t Act In Haste, But Don’t Dither

Valued employees are pretty hard to come by. Every so often one of them will surprise you with “behaviour that is unbecoming” (a term borrowed from the police and military). When that happens, your role is to stay calm and intervene in a positive, reassuring way, while also getting to the bottom of why things went off the rails so badly.

Letting the employee know that their behaviour was unacceptable is necessary. So is helping them come to terms with the key issues behind their actions. Refer them to HR or your private Employee Assistance Program for personal problems. Think about how to address any internal issues that may have contributed. Then get the employee back to work and focused on contributing again quickly. Monitor their performance and trust them not to erupt again. Now that everyone knows what’ll happen if things repeat, it’s time to move on and get the best from all involved.