Human Resources News & Insights

A 5-step plan to protect your company from ‘workers gone wild’

No question, the general level of civility in all phases of life seems to be dropping like a rock. So how do you keep your workplace from becoming an episode of “Workers Gone Wild”?

Industrial psychologist Dennis Davis, who works for the law firm Ogletree Deakins and is a regular speakers at the LEAP conferences in Las Vegas, has a plan for maintaining behavioral standards at work.

Dr. Davis’ recommended five-step process to restore sanity and civility to the workplace:

1. Tweak your violence policy

Surely it is already against company policy for any employee to engage in any acts of workplace violence.

Take the next step and also make it clear that all allegations of bullying and intimidation will be thoroughly investigated and dealt with as well.

Avoiding allegations of retaliation

Research shows that in most cases, the guilty parties in instances of bullying are supervisors. So some special training for managers may be in order.

A successful anti-bullying policy will also include a reporting mechanism, telling employees precisely where they can report incidents of  bullying.

Since the complainants will likely be afraid of their immediate supervisors if they are the guilty parties, you need to tell people where they can go with their complaints: your HR department or another appropriate senior official.

And since they will probably fear reprisals from supervisors for reporting them for bullying, supervisors also need training in how to refrain from retaliation. Lawsuits for retaliation are now the most common – and the most expensive – type of employment lawsuit, so you want to avoid any allegations of retaliation at all cost.

2. Anti-harassment training for managers

Managers and supervisors are often promoted from the rank-and-file because they were good at their jobs. But that doesn’t mean that they automatically know how to be effective team leaders.

It’s best to conduct this type of anti-harassment training when employees are first promoted to the supervisory ranks – then be sure to repeat the training every two years.

Your supervisors are your first line of defense against inappropriate conduct. If they don’t take action at the first instance, such inappropriate conduct can become the norm in your workplace.

Then it will be very difficult to discipline someone for similar inappropriate behavior later on.

3. Tweak performance appraisals process

If the annual performance evaluations are not accurate, you might as well not bother to do them – or bother with any kind of employee discipline, for that matter. Ensuring that performance reviews are accurate – and do not sweep problematic behavior under the rug – is a matter of supervisor responsibility.

But it’s the responsibility of the HR Department and other top corporate executives to make sure that supervisors have been given adequate training to conduct honest and realistic performance reviews and that supervisors will then held be accountable on this matter.

Create a written record

Any instances of unacceptable behavior by difficult people must be documented and dealt with immediately, and it needs to figure in performance reviews as well, so there is a written record in case an escalation of the organization’s progressive discipline procedures should become necessary.

If supervisors at performance review time shy away from confronting the bullies in the workplace who engage in unacceptable behavior, the company has tacitly put its stamp of approval on such behavior, which can lead to untold tragedies and legal problems down the line.

4. Set the example

Everyone must walk the talk. Not even CEOs can tell off-color jokes that could be considered offensive. Nobody is above the law or above company policies.

It is especially important for all people in the management ranks, from first-level supervisors to senior managers, to set the example.

If any manager is allowed to get away with behavior that’s supposed to be against company policies, like telling dirty jokes, bullying or engaging in other unacceptable behavior, it will be impossible to credibly discipline employees for the same offenses.

The tone for the right behavior in any organization is set from the top.

An on-paper-only policy, if not adhered to, actually does more harm than good. It gives plaintiffs’ attorneys a chance to argue that the company knew better because it had a good policy on paper and deliberately chose to ignore it.

That kind of situation spurs juries to tack on multi-million-dollar punitive damage awards against employers.

Enforce discipline consistently

If one employee is let off the hook for what another employee has also done, no measure of discipline will stand up in court, in an arbitration proceeding or in grievance procedures. Inconsistent administration of discipline has tripped up many companies as they try to deal with an offender.

5. Deal with problems swiftly and severely

Discipline doesn’t have to mean termination. Discipline can be – and is – effective when offenders say: “Ouch, that hurt!”

The discipline administered by the employer will be sufficient if it leads the offenders to convince themselves that the misbehavior, whatever form it took, really wasn’t worth it.

Discipline short of termination can take the form of a note in the employee’s personnel file or an official reprimand, and sometimes a brief suspension without pay — whatever gets the message across that the behavior had best not be repeated.

Consequences must be spelled out for any future repetitions of the offensive behavior, which will of course include termination if the offender will not mend his or her ways.

To be effective and serve its purpose, discipline must be:

  • certain (administered with a sure hand)
  • swift (applied immediately after the misdeed or as close as is practical
  • after the act), and
  • severe (sufficient to cause some pain on the offender).

What if they’re trying to get fired?

Managers can be faced with particularly difficult situations by people who seem to invite termination, which sounds crazy but actually happens more than anticipated.

These people may tempt supervisors with bad behavior or by deliberately forsaking their duties. For whatever reason, they’ve had it with the company and with their present job and they think they might as well sit home and collect unemployment insurance payouts for a while until they run out.

In such cases, employers have the option of creating a written record showing that the termination was for cause, and specifying that the employee engaged in open subordination of supervisors’ legitimate orders and/or that the employee was guilty of a serious violation of policy.

Employees who may be tempted to get themselves fired should know that the company will oppose any award of unemployment insurance.

It may be a good idea to make it company policy – and clearly communicate such a policy – to oppose unemployment insurance awards in case of insubordination, serious deliberate dereliction of duties or violation of company policies.


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