Unprofessional Behavior in the Workplace

Unprofessional Behavior in the Workplace

The many frustrations caused by the pandemic seem to have increased the amount of unprofessional behavior at work. And with the current U.S. employee shortages, you may find it harder than you expect to replace someone.

For employers, the tendency isn’t to hire unqualified workers. It’s employing underqualified ones. Businesses that understand the return on investment from training, especially when it comes to soft skills, are more likely to not invest in something that may seem unnecessary.  Poor-quality work prevents companies from growing long-term, poor management skills create a work environment where it is more difficult to retain high-quality workers. Top-tier companies invest in training, and they don’t neglect management skills. Managers that are trained to handle negative behavior can get the job done efficiently, which affects the entire company. 

Knowing how to prevent, contain or redirect problem behavior is an invaluable skill that will make work life better for everyone. Start by establishing minimum standards of behavior for the workplace, such as being courteous, respectful and professional. You and other senior leaders need to set the example. Always be civil and make a point of respecting others. Be a facilitator when you are leading problem-solving meetings. Don’t give opinions until you’ve heard other people’s opinions, and give other people credit for ideas, even if you thought of them, too. Let people save face when necessary.

The next step is to categorize problems. The important ones put positive, collaborative relationships at risk if they aren’t solved because they affect trust and mutual respect. Those are the ones you want to solve. If you aren’t certain how important a problem is to you or someone else, be careful about handling it until you know whether it matters, and once you realize you are dealing with an important problem, make a plan to deal with it. Let go of unimportant issues as soon as you realize they don’t matter.

When you are trying to solve a behavior-related problem, use the following rules:

  1. Since people construe written messages more negatively than spoken ones, talk to someone face-to-face if you think they might respond emotionally. However, document your understanding of what was said by writing them a note afterward.
  2. Clarify your Wrong assumptions cause toxic relationships, so make sure you understand what someone meant before you treat your assumptions as facts. The best way to do this is to tell them what you think their position is and have them confirm it. Jathan Janove, a former employment attorney and the author of Hard-Won Wisdom, recommends using the No-FEAR confrontation method (outlined below).
  3. Focus on solutions instead of blame. Think about what the best outcome would be and work toward that instead of rehashing what happened.

The No-FEAR confrontation method is a way to get rid of wrong assumptions and let people be heard. It also shows your respect and attention. The steps are as follows:

  • Frame the issue by being brief and matter-of-fact. Describe the core problem. Don’t generalize it or use words that characterize the other person negatively. Say, “Your work is not at the level we need for someone in your” Don’t say, “You are incompetent.”
  • Explore the problem by asking questions. “What’s your perspective? How do you want to solve the problem?” Listen closely and carefully to the answers.
  • Give the person you are talking to a summary of what you think they said, and ask them to acknowledge that you understand what they are saying. If they tell you your summary is wrong, say something along the lines of, “Sorry. What did I get wrong?” Keep working at this until they agree you understand what they are telling you. If necessary, take some time to think.
  • You don’t have to agree with what someone said, but do respond

Suppose you have tried to deal proactively with an employee, and it just hasn’t worked. You should be particularly careful about what you do next if there is a collective bargaining agreement in place or the employee:

  • Has legal protection against discrimination because of factors such as age, national origin, race or sex
  • Can claim disability caused by a medical condition
  • Can claim retaliation for whistle-blowing

To prevent liability:

  • Have a process in place for dealing with problem behavior, and apply those standards promptly and consistently. Review your process periodically, and adjust and improve it as necessary.
  • Start documenting problems as soon as you identify them in a way that is as fair and neutral as possible.
  • Be transparent, direct and specific.

Transparency means that if one person complains about another employee to a third party and you are aware of it, call everyone involved into a meeting, repeat what has been said, and attempt to solve the problem in the open. To be direct and specific, describe the problem behavior and explain its impact.

It’s important to deal with and stop bad behavior in the workplace. Handling the problem kindly and promptly will minimize liability and create a place where workers like to be.

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