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Company culture: how to rein in bad behaviour in the workplace

As the recent drama in Westminster has proved, managing different personalities in the workplace can be a challenge – so how can HR teams make sure that everyone is on the same page from the outset? In addition, what should you do when bad behaviour does arise?

6th Mar 2020
Relationship Director hr inspire
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Bad behaviour at work
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Over the last few weeks Downing Street has faced criticism over government personalities. Home Secretary, Priti Patel faces allegations of bullying. Last month, there was the rapid resignation of Andrew Sabisky, a Downing Street advisor hired by Dominic Cummings following the infamous call for ‘misfits and weirdos’, who was later linked to racist and inappropriate remarks.

According to some news commentators the genius of Mr Cummings could be worth a few bad headlines or his apparent skirmishes with colleagues and the media. Bad attitudes can drag down a workplace, however, and should be reined in from the minute they’re evident.

A study by Michigan State University found that rude and uncivil behaviour costs businesses £10,900 ($14,000) per employee through lost productivity and work time. The same study found that disrespectful behaviour is contagious – rudeness, such as sarcasm or put-downs, quickly spreads from person to person in the workplace, with the majority soon exhibiting the same or similar attitudes. Meanwhile, a recipient experiences mental fatigue from trying to make sense of the behaviour. Unlike bullying which is more intentional and obvious, rude and inappropriate behaviour can be open to individual interpretation.

Curtail bad behaviour from the top down

Stopping bad behaviour in its tracks before it forms cultural roots requires more than just the ability to identify a few bad apples, however. Cultural change has to be driven from the top down to succeed. HR should conduct a review of the company’s culture and identify its weaknesses, paying particular attention to how the board and senior management team behave.

Are they exhibiting rude or inappropriate attitudes that could be potentially damaging to the company’s reputation? Are they sarcastic? Do they shout, or continuously criticise or are they argumentative? Next, review the reporting line managers below – are they exhibiting similar behaviours? The chances are yes, or they’re showing signs of anxiety or stress as a consequence of their bosses’ behaviour. Overall, a toxic climate is evolving.  

Use this cultural evidence to agree behavioural expectations with the board for them to lead by example, and outline how the business will be a champion of civility. Then look beyond the board. Do employees understand the company’s purpose for a respectful culture? Do internal policies and processes encourage an accountable environment and is respect championed at every stage of an employee’s lifecycle? Do line managers have the skills and confidence to openly address behaviour and how confident are employees to voice concerns?

Employees should be encouraged to speak up if they’re concerned or confused, and invited by managers to share opinions or air grievances. Managers must be regularly trained, coached and mentored to spot and address unacceptable behaviour in others so bad attitudes can be swiftly curtailed before they spread.

Behaviour boundaries

The challenge for today’s leaders is the diversity within teams – it extends beyond physical attributes like race, gender and religion to include traits like personality, work styles and generational differences. Differences in opinion, style, communications etc. can lead to personality clashes and conflict, resulting in bad behaviour.  

Diversity must be embraced with ‘being different’ seen as a positive, as this increases the talent pool, brings in new ideas and skills, and different perspectives. For any diverse workforce to work effectively, however, there must be a culture of respect with boundaries set from the start on how the business expects everyone to treat one another.

Outline clearly these boundaries within a ‘behavioural code of conduct’ policy. Set communication boundaries so that workers use the appropriate tone and also set language and behaviour boundaries on appropriate and inappropriate behaviour such as physical interactions between workers. Include your purpose behind these policies so that employees know they’re working towards a positive goal. These codes send out a clear message of support to managers, helping them resolve workplace issues, and encourage staff to report wrong doings without any repercussions on their career.

Don’t make excuses such as ‘they’ve been here a long time,’ or ‘they work really hard and generate great results.’ Be clear that there are no exceptions, and bad behaviour will not be tolerated. Develop procedures for disciplinary action for workers who violate codes of contact, and don’t be afraid to take action if necessary.

Whether the culprit is a star performer or not, don’t be tempted to turn a blind eye or bury your head in the sand to poor attitudes – there’s a clear link between performance and a culture of respect. Star performers may boost the bottom line but this can soon turn sour when the business starts to feel the repercussions of bad or inappropriate behaviour on the moral of the workforce.

Managing tricky characters

Then there’s the particularly tricky characters within the team, who may not have crossed the bad behaviour boundaries but struggle to engage with others. Take time out with them for a simple informal chat. A lunchtime walk or a coffee in the canteen can do a lot to encourage employees to open up and understand their issues or struggles. Listen to what they have to say, give feedback, and set goals and boundaries that may help them to communicate better and before any matters cause conflict within the team.

The secret to creating a healthier culture is to directly address the source of the problem. Run regular culture checks to ensure employees are treating each other with respect, and leaders are walking the talk. That way you can identify any bad apples before they turn the rest of the bunch rotten.

Interested in this topic? Read Bullying in the workplace: how to monitor and manage unacceptable behaviour.

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