Bad behaviour in the workplace: nature or nurture?

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Reflections
Why do many charming interviewees turn into nightmare employees once they are in the job? Are some staff difficult because of deep-seated psychological flaws? Or is it the culture of the employer itself that turns employees bad and creates the awkward squad? Either way, what can businesses do to avoid recruiting or creating employees who behave badly in the workplace?

Are problem employees born awkward or do they have awkwardness thrust upon them? Alan Redman, business psychologist with Criterion Partnership considers the question of nature or nurture and looks at how businesses can avoid bad behaviour in the work place.

Some people are awkward or under perform at work because they lack the abilities the job demands. For others it's because they simply don't enjoy being there; their values and motivations do not match the role. Companies are increasingly striving to assess the alignment between their values and employees but accurately achieving this is difficult using traditional methods.

When an organisation identifies how certain personalities will interact with their culture during recruitment, problem behaviour in the future can be eliminated. This requires sophisticated psychometric assessment methods.

Companies are increasingly adopting online tests that match the candidate's personality with the values of the business. In addition to analysing abilities, big names like ASDA, Specsavers and AirMiles have introduced online testing which give specific focus to attitudes, values and motivations.

ASDA is a leader in employing people who share their ethos. Judith Colbert, resourcing manager at ASDA says: "At ASDA, we recruit for attitude and train for skill. The company has a strong brand identity with a clear set of values so it is key our employees share those values."

Kevin Fitzpatrick, the recruitment manager at The AirMiles Travel Company agrees and has already seen the benefits of taking this approach. "In our travel centre, we are looking for people who have a passion for travel and are enthusiastic about delivering a first class service for our customers. Since introducing a personality questionnaire at the application stage we have been much better placed to employ the right type of person for our team."

Well designed recruitment processes that ensure new staff have the mental firepower to do the job and enjoy and value being in the role ensure businesses avoid hiring problem people. But businesses must also take steps to avoid their staff being transformed into difficult employees by the culture and management style of the organisation. These are some of the cultural causes of bad behaviour at work:

Negative role modelling:
An organisation's culture is shaped by the behaviours and values of senior managers. If managers who reach senior positions use bullying, office-politics or dishonesty then these negative role models can create and reinforce the same pattern of behaviour across the company.

Reinforced behaviour:
This is where people are overtly or inadvertently rewarded for their bad behaviour which perpetuates the cycle. Just as a child having a tantrum in a supermarket shouldn't be placated with a treat, employees who moan or sulk shouldn't be rewarded with what they want. Using techniques similar to those seen in television programmes like Little Angels and Supernanny, business psychologists can train managers how to identify and deal with these situations.

Treating the cause not the symptom:
Some behaviour is due to deep-rooted issues, so addressing the symptoms will not solve the problem or help the individual to develop. In these situations barriers to development are tackled in private one-to-one sessions and may involve exploration of events earlier in life.

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