For more information please call  800.727.2766


Eliminating Problematic Workplace Behavior Without Eliminating the Employee

Mary, one of our hardest working and most productive employees, is stirring up some problems in her department again. Mary has designated herself as the “champion” for all employee rights and often escalates rumors to full-fledged crisis situations, whether they involve her or not. You can rest assured that Mary will always be at the heart of any controversy. Although she believes she’s looking out for the best interest of the company and its employees, Mary’s actions are eroding away at the department’s morale and lots of time is spent putting out unnecessary fires. On the other hand, Mary is incredibly bright, her peers respect her, and she’s incredibly talented and productive.

Often times, the employer is left asking the following question: “How do we address these issues to insure that we eliminate the problem behavior, without eliminating the employee?”

Of course, this is one permutation of the issue that can play out in many ways. Essentially, what you have is an extremely productive, dedicated employee, with a strong work ethic, whose performance is being undermined by their less than desirable interpersonal skills. It could be that the employee is a micromanager, or the employee has been displaying aggressive or harassing behavior. Other times, it may be that the employee has been making insensitive remarks, and/or a failure to respect the boundaries of other employees. These are just a few of the traits that can be problematic, but the approach to addressing these issues can apply across the board to a myriad of different problems.

In this article, we will revisit the approaches available to employers to resolve these issues. The goal is to prevent employees’ bad behaviors from turning them into bad employees.

What to Do

1. Sit Down and Talk

It never ceases to amaze me that, often times, employees have absolutely no clue that their behavior is a problem. A simple discussion wherein the employee is told that there is an issue often eliminates the problem right there and then. In this conversation, it is incredibly important to explicitly discuss the problematic behavior, explain that this behavior is unacceptable, and that the employee may not continue to carry on in this manner. While the conversation may be casual, the documentation and follow-up should not be. Keep careful track of the conversation and monitor the change in behavior.

At this point I must mention that there are instances when an employer must, due to the severity of the behavior, move to a much stronger course of action. For example, a manager who smacks the hands of her employees when they make a mistake should not be dealt with in the same manner as an employee who likes to hug his employees for a job well done. Although both situations involve physical touching, the approach to resolving the problem will probably be very different. In other words, each situation must be examined individually and the best course of action determined.

2. Additional Training and/or Coaching

Additional training and on-going coaching will, of course, mean an investment of time and resources on the part of the employer. However, employees can benefit greatly from individualized training tailored address their specific issues. More and more employers are recognizing that in the long run this expense pales in comparison to the costs of potential litigation, turnover costs, and time and money expended to “clean up” the aftermath.

Individualized or one-on-one training and coaching can be tailored to help an employee work on interpersonal skills including communication, management skills, and/or anger-management. These sessions may also be geared to improving on-the-job skills such as evaluating employee performance, improving interviewing skills involved in hiring candidates, and/or harassment prevention training. For a detailed discussion on what one-on-one training is, the process, and its benefits, refer to, “When Good Employees Go Bad . . .Get Them Back On Track With One-on-One Training” by EPS Consultant Rachelle Berlin Weathersby.

3. Progressive Discipline

An option, which is probably familiar to most of you, is to begin the process of progressive discipline. Below is a brief description of the escalating steps of this approach. Although we discuss these steps as being progressive in nature, an employer’s policies and procedures determine whether there is a requirement that an employer must use all steps prior to moving forward with more serious action such as suspension or termination. Each situation must be examined independently and the most appropriate response taken. Further, review your organization’s own progressive discipline policy to ensure that the organization retains the flexibility to address disciplinary issues in a productive manner without being overly constrained by the progressive steps.

a. Counseling/Verbal Reprimand

This is essentially the sit-down conversation referred to at the beginning of the article. This is the opportunity for the employer to explain to the employee that there is a problem, which must be corrected. This is also an employee’s opportunity to discuss any factors that may be leading the employee to behave in this way. Counseling and verbal reprimands need not be negative. Rather they should be conducted in a constructive manner with an eye toward reform and rehabilitation. Suggestions for change and improvement should be offered as opposed to simply stating the problem.

b. Written reprimand

This is a written warning, placed in the employee’s file, stating that either the problem is corrected or the employer will take more serious action, up to and including possible termination. This statement should be addressed to the employee and should discuss a history of past behaviors, the current status of the issue, and clear warnings about future results, should the behavior continue. The documentation serves as evidence of the employer’s identification of the problem and notice to the employee to correct the behavior. Lack of documentation muddles the employer’s ability to move to suspension or termination if the employee can claim he or she was never made aware of the problem earlier.

c. Suspension

Some employers opt to suspend an employee, with or without pay, in an effort to correct problem behavior, short of termination. The length of a suspension will depend on the situation and may be as long or as short as the employer deems fit. However, when dealing with exempt employees, the employer must make sure that any suspension without pay is in line with the Fair Labor Standards Act, and will not compromise an employee’s exempt status. These decisions should always be considered carefully, and if necessary, legal counsel should be consulted. Finally, make sure the suspension notice is in writing, states a beginning and end date, and is considered a final warning. Lastly, the notice must state that termination will result if the behavior does not cease.

Caveat: The suspension and/or termination of public employees, and/or those employees whose employment is otherwise governed by a collective bargaining agreement, must comply with the provisions of the applicable rules and regulations. It is crucial that these rules and regulations be complied with when considering discipline and employers must ensure that the employee affected by the action is receiving due process. In these situations, we recommend the decision be made in consultation with legal counsel.

d. Termination

When all else fails, and an employee is unwilling to correct his/her problematic behavior, or when the behavior is so egregious that termination is the only option, an employer must make the decision to terminate decisively and quickly.

If considering termination, I recommend reading the “Ten Commandments of Firing”, by EPS Co-Founder & Senior Consultant, Laurie R. Jones.

4. Rewarding Good Behavior

The approach on the other side of the spectrum from discipline is recognizing/rewarding good behavior. We’ve all heard that, generally, positive results are better achieved by rewarding desired behavior as opposed to punishing undesirable behavior. Along these lines, some employers may consider recognizing and/or rewarding positive behaviors as a way of eliminating unwanted actions.

In developing a rewards system, employer should make sure that clearly defined standards are set forth which define the desired behavior. Employees are less likely to claim favoritism if objective criteria are established for granting the rewards, as opposed to a manager subjectively choosing the employees who are to be recognized. Of course, this should be a system where all employees are eligible for the recognition or reward, and actually receive it when they meet the standards. Rewards and recognition that help both the employer and the employee get what they need from work are a win-win situation.1

What NOT to Do

One trap employers should avoid is making excuses for unacceptable employee behavior. Assuming that this problem or trait is just part of an employee’s personality, and everyone should “just accept” and/or “deal with it” is like playing a high-stakes game of chicken. The following, or similar, statement illustrates the point.

“Oh, that’s just good ol’ Joe. He’s a hot head. We just ignore him when he explodes like that and starts cussing.”

Eventually Joe is going to cause the organization trouble. His behavior will offend someone and they will file a complaint or charge. Ignoring someone’s unprofessional, unbecoming, personal traits is a risk to the organization. It affects the culture, affects the morale, and gives an impression that inappropriate workplace behavior is tolerated, or worse, encouraged. Bullying, intimidating, violent or otherwise abusive behavior is not necessarily illegal, but nonetheless should not be tolerated in the work environment.

Behavior that does not rise to the level of being “harassing,” but that can be just as problematic and destructive can be addressed through internal policies, such as “Code of Conduct”2 policies. These allow employers to address an employee’s inappropriate behavior by referring to the policy. It avoids the perception of a personal attack and puts the onus on compliance with organizational policy as opposed to simply a preference that we want a certain employee to act within certain boundaries.

Regardless of the approach chosen to address these problems, the most important things is that these issues are addressed, and that employees bad behaviors do not turn them into bad employees!

1 See, Five Tips for Effective Employee Recognition, by Susan M. Heathfield,

2 A sample “Code of Conduct” policy is included for your reference.