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Read time13 mins

What to do when an employee behaves badly

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Practical process for dealing with toxic workplace behaviours

How to tackle toxic behaviour

An employee has exhibited bad behaviour so as a leader what do you do next?

If toxic behaviour of an employee is not dealt with correctly it can affect the wellbeing of others in the workplace.

We provide you with some practical tips on how to assess whether your organisation has the skills, policies, and processes to deal with toxic behaviour.

A practical process for dealing with toxic workplace behaviours

Watch the video to understand why you must deal with toxic behaviours promptly, the key things you need to have in place, and a practical process you can follow to manage the issue and improve the behaviours.

Watch the next video in this series here:

Part 11 – How to Coach a Toxic Employee

And watch the previous video here:

Part 9 – Clarifying Acceptable Workplace Behaviours

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Video Transcript

Hi, Andrew from SACS and welcome to video number 10 in our 11 video series on toxic behaviours at work.

In this one, we’ll be talking about what do you do when somebody behaves toxically.

Somebody’s starting to act in a way that is not favourable, and not only that it’s not your kind of common all garden misbehaviour, it’s actually getting toxic.

So it’s affecting the wellbeing of other people.

So what we’ll be doing is we’ll be talking about some philosophical points about this, ethical points, if you want to put it that way.

And then some really practical ideas about things that you might like to tackle in order to be able to deal effectively with toxic behaviours at work.

Do you have the will to tackle it?

Firstly, I think there’s a reality check question you need to ask yourself.

Do you have the will to tackle this? There’s an ethical consideration here, isn’t there?

When somebody is behaving toxically at work, sometimes organisations don’t act so quickly, because maybe they’re being kind to the person in their own eyes.

But my perspective on this is that I think from an ethical point of view, we have the greatest commitment to the greatest number, which is to say if somebody’s being exposed to these toxic behaviours, I think that we as employers have a an ethical responsibility to remove them from that stress as much as possible.

And I’ve seen situations where in work groups of let’s say a dozen people, over the course of a couple of years, you might have eight or nine people who’ve left that group, purely and simply to get away from the toxic behaviours of an individual.

Well, under those circumstances, how is that fair or reasonable? The organisation should move on this and should move on it as rapidly as possible.

Do you have the skills?

The second question is, do you have the skill? Dealing with this stuff is often left to line managers who may or may not be skilled in doing this.

You can imagine, if I’m dealing with a toxic employee, I try to deal with it. Maybe there’s a union involvement, or perhaps some friends of that person. It can rapidly get to the situation where the leader thinks, “Hey, you know, I’m alone here. I’m fighting this battle single handed.”

So it’s really important to have the will to do it, but also to have the skill to do it.

And very often having the person advised by a senior industrial relations expert to make sure that they don’t step on any landmines through the kind of legal process that needs to take place of formal warnings and redirections and those kinds of things, that can be really helpful.

So organisations really need to support team leaders who are facing this situation.

Quite often it’s the team leader that ends up in the greatest stress, because of this toxic employee situation.

And what they’re really trying to do is just remediate the work environment that is being damaged by that toxic individual.

Do you have the policies?

The next question is whether you have the policies to tackle it.

We’ve seen many organisations that have policies that are extremely vague and don’t give step by step guidance to a leader. Let’s say about how to deal with this. And often you find policies that are so vague that, for instance, they don’t have any indication of time for remediation.

Now, what I mean by that is that if somebody is asked to change their behaviour, and they don’t, well, what’s an acceptable timeframe.

If you’ve got policies that make it clear this behaviour needs to turn around within one week, let’s say, then you’re giving the person an opportunity to have clarity, but you’re also giving the leader an opportunity to, in effect, manage the situation professionally and well.

Most policies in organisations are written by lawyers. And the lawyers will often write those policies to make them as protective of the organisation as possible, which often leads to very cautious approaches to disciplining staff, for instance.

Now the problem with that, of course, is that you can remain in a toxic work environment without having the policy authority to make sure that you’re dealing with this stuff appropriately and quickly.

And, I mean, who wants to work in a workplace where there’s negative behaviours taking place and nothing gets done.

So, I suggest that you review your policies to make sure that they are hard edged enough to allow you to deal with this sort of stuff in appropriate time.

I dealt once with a hospital, by the way, and this hospital had a terrible history of these types of toxic behaviours, where people had been in place in teams for four, five years, still acting toxically towards their colleagues.

And I remember a new human resources director came into that organisation. And the first thing that she did is she reviewed the policies, and she changed them.

Under the industrial agreement it was possible to change them.

Now, when it gets to a judiciary, when it gets to an independent party, that looks at what’s being done in a particular situation.

One of the first questions that they’ll ask is, “Have you got policies that deal with this?” And the second question they’ll ask is, “Did you obey those policies?”

Now, if you have policies and they’re available to everybody and you obeyed your policies, chances are you’re on much further ground than if, for instance, you’ve done stuff that seems reasonable, but isn’t backed by your policy.

So, you need the will, you need the skill, and you need the policies to deal with it. And then of course you need a process.

Do you have a process?

So the best process is a documentation of escalation, and a group of leaders educated how to do it. Let’s say that somebody’s doing a great job.

The first stage of escalation is to recognise that person.

To say, “You’re doing a great job.” So that’s maybe the most benign level on this escalation process.

The second stage of escalation might be that somebody’s doing something, which is not favourable.

Let’s say it’s incivility, minor, negative behaviours.

Things like maybe being a little bit too teasing in your interactions with other colleagues.

So the next stage up on the escalation process may be a quiet chat, and this should be documented.

When this happens, you should take that person aside privately, as a leader, and you should have a conversation with them, and guide them about the types of behaviours that you need from them in the future.

Now, this is a technique called feed forward, rather than just giving them feedback, which is to say, “Well, you’re being a little impolite.”

Feed forward is, “Instead of this, this is what we want you to do.”

By the way, it can be shown in adult learning research that this will change people’s behaviour more effectively.

Telling them what they need to do is far more powerful than simply telling them what they’re doing wrong.

So maybe that’s the next stage, a quiet private chat, that nobody else knows about.

Escalation process and formal warnings

Then maybe the next stage of the escalation process is where you give more formal guidance.

“Okay, you’re still doing this thing. Let’s agree that this won’t happen in future, and let’s agree what will happen in future.” And you might document that.

And so up the escalation process to the point where it gets into formal warnings, and maybe dismissal. But the point is having an agreed process, and most policies don’t have a process, but having an agreed process where the policy says step one, step two, step three, step four, step five.

That can be incredibly helpful. And it gives the line manager an opportunity to rely on something from a source of truth point of view from within the organisation about how you manage this kind of issue.

Here’s an infographic to suggest a kind of a process that some organisations have adopted, where you might start off with firstly, the identification of any issue.

That’s where people are reporting, “Well, this person’s acting in a toxic fashion,” or whatever.

Point number two is, what is the evidence for that? Is it really true?

Because of course, sometimes employees don’t get on and sometimes people have an allegation against somebody that’s completely well founded, but of course you need, from a procedural justice point of view, to make sure that that is true.

That it’s something that the person is doing.

Diagnose the problem

The third component might be a diagnosis process. And diagnosis is often used these days.

So for instance, if a person is being said to behave in a certain fashion, maybe you get them involved in a development process.

And the development process can be written into your policies that where you see negative behaviours.

And let’s say, the evidence is, yes, this is happening.

Then if you’ve got a policy that says anybody can be invited into a development process, which might involve things like psych assessment, or 360 degree feedback, that can gather information, which is extremely powerful to help that person, A, understand their impact on other people, but B, to come up with an evidence based development plan that helps them to improve.

And that can be a really powerful thing to do

. Again, if it’s written into policies, it becomes the most normal thing in the world.

“Okay, we’ve investigated this. We’ve discovered that there are negative behaviours. You’re a valued employee. We need you to turn around. Here’s the process that we are going to get you involved in.”

What is the prognosis?

Point number four, prognosis.

How likely is it that this can be turned around? Because in a practical sense, once you’ve done this analysis and you’ve talked to the person.

But let’s say they say, “Well, forget it. I’m not interested in participating in this.”

But okay, that leads to a conversation, which is, “Okay, well, where are you going to be working in future?” And, “Can we help you to transition there? Because these behaviours, frankly, are not acceptable.” So if you have that kind of situation, the prognosis question is an important one.

Now, if the prognosis is positive, which might look like, “Yeah, well, look, I’m sorry. I know I do this and I’m going to try and change.”

Okay, then you get a person involved in a coaching and development process.

Development plan

So the development plan is something that’s agreed with the staff member and with a line manager.

And, by the way, it can be a really useful thing if people know that this is happening, because they think, “Okay, well, I can start to trust in the organisation’s response to this”.

And we now know that there is something happen.  It doesn’t have to be chapter and verse, so you’re violating the person’s confidentiality, but it is good for people to know that the organisation is responding in some way to this situation. And that hope is in sight in terms of future, a more positive workplace arising.

Development of a clear accountability model. In development of this sort, this is often missed.

A person says, “I will turn around.” But how will you know this?

It’s a really good idea to have a clear accountability model, which says, this person needs to change his or her behaviours in this way, by this time.

Let’s say one week, two weeks, or something like that. And here’s how we’re going to know. Here’s how we’re going to measure it. Or it might be something to do with performance.

So the person’s getting bad customer feedback.

All right, well, the customer feedback has to be remediated within two weeks time.

And here’s how we’re going to measure the customer feedback.

That kind of process of accountability is very important.

Learning and development without an accountability framework doesn’t work anywhere near as well without some measure of success.

So a person’s behaviour has shifted. What is the evidence of that?

Accountability measures

Then, enactment of the development plan with accountability measures.

So we do what we’ve agreed with the staff member and we measure success.

Then the person moves up or down the escalation process, as their behaviour merits.

So, if they’re not improving, then they move up the escalation process, towards ultimately dismissal.

And if the person’s improving, then they move down the escalation process, to the point where they’re being congratulated on it. “Well, this is grand, you know, you’ve turned things around. Congratulations. Thank you. This is wonderful.”

And then of course, what also may well have to be undertaken is some kind of ongoing monitoring.

Perhaps monitoring is putting it too extremely, but very often when people are in this situation they can remediate their behaviours, and sometimes they remediate them permanently, but it can be that people will slip back.

Now, under those circumstances, you want the staff around them to understand, “Yeah, we’re still watching this.”

But if you’ve got this kind of a process, there’s plenty of evidence of people having turned around and never having recurred to those negative behaviours.

People can go through tough times, or whatever.

That combination of accountability, and support, and empowerment, can be really powerful.

We’re holding you accountable, but we’re also supporting you equally at the same time.

That combination can be very powerful for turning these things around.

So those are some ideas about what to do when a person is behaving toxically.

The final video in this series, we’ll talk a little bit about coaching.

The kinds of coaching techniques that you might use with an individual to cause them to turn around.

Join us for the next video to find out more on this interesting topic.

Watch the next video in this series to find out more about dealing with toxic employees:

Part 11 – How to Coach a Toxic Employee

And watch the previous video here:

Part 9 – Clarifying Acceptable Workplace Behaviours

And if you’d like some help screening future hires for toxic behaviour, contact us about our Psychometric Assessment Tools.

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