HUMAN RESOURCES: Meeting Offensive Behavior Head-on
I spent an hour and a half in a most unusual meeting a few weeks ago. In any given situation, I believe in getting directly to the point. For instance, if a manager tells me she wants to send out a memo to all employees because just one employee has violated a policy, I have to tell her that I am opposed to that idea. I prefer to sit down with the individual who created the issue, rather than blanketing the whole department. Having done that, if a memo to remind everyone else in the department is warranted, she can proceed. However, I think holding the individual responsible for his or her own behavior is a better way to approach staff.
The 90-minute meeting came about because an employee came dangerously close to being insubordinate in a meeting with her department manager. The manager called the employee into his office to discuss a complaint that had been lodged by her co-workers regarding a comment she made on a regular basis. The co-workers found the comment offensive and derogatory. Suffice it to say that it included a reference to “slugs.” The employee went on the offensive, stating she didn’t see anything wrong with her comments, as they weren’t directed towards anyone in particular, but to the room in general. And, on top of that, she revealed, her co-workers were guilty of saying inappropriate things that she never reported.
When that meeting drew to a close, the angry employee approached another co-worker and voiced what the co-worker took to be a threat toward the manager. Very concerned, this co-worker contacted me. I called the meeting with the manager, the angry employee and the worried co-worker.
In my experience, people who don’t, can’t or won’t accept responsibility for their own actions tend to try to re-direct attention toward others while raising their voices in an effort to intimidate the person pointing out their shortcomings. That is exactly what happened in this meeting after I asked the employee to describe what happened in and after the counseling session that took place between her and her supervisor. I was taken aback by the ferocity with which the employee responded. Exhibiting ferocity with arrogance is quite a display. I found that I, literally, was forced to raise my voice and physically hold my hand up in a “stop” motion to get the employee to quiet down. It took several tries, but she finally did so and allowed me to re-direct her to the question that was asked. We reenacted this several times. I felt as if we were being bullied. This time, it didn’t work.
Some behavior isn’t necessarily illegal or against company policy. While our employee’s behavior was unacceptable, she never crossed the line to insubordination. But, it was disruptive and resulted in spending time with her that could have been more productively spent. I was glad that the worried co-worker brought it to our attention, however, as this kind of behavior often goes unaddressed.
Supervisors and co-workers who realize that offensive behavior must be addressed understand that not addressing it implies that the behavior is acceptable. Bad behavior can go even further than causing morale problems to affecting productivity and even to the creation of a hostile work environment. Failure to take care of the problem can cause excessive turnover as the disruptive person is rarely the person who leaves. So, sitting down with the employee, while it may be uncomfortable, is imperative.
I said that I felt as if we were being bullied in our meeting. That kind of behavior is all too common. There are others that we all periodically find it necessary to contend with: people who consistently interrupt others because of their mistaken belief that their views are more important than anyone else’s; people who are just generally “grouchy” – rude, sarcastic and negative; loud people -- those who can be heard from anywhere in a room; and last, but not least, people whose arrogance and obvious feelings of superiority annoy everyone around them.
Our meeting ended on a positive note in spite of my take that the employee had elements of the behaviors of all of the types of people listed in the previous paragraph. The challenge remained to be getting her to acknowledge her behavior was a problem for people around her. Once we got there, everything changed. I placed the decision to keep her on in the department in the hands of the manager. He decided to keep her, with the understanding that she would work on getting along better with her co-workers and on more gracefully accepting positive criticism.
Sometimes, all that is needed is a discussion with the employee about the behavior necessary to bring about the kind of change everyone wants. Rarely does a blanket memo work.