Dealing with Unacceptable Employee Behaviors

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Fortunately the majority of employees are motivated, pleasant and productive. Unfortunately, the small number of employees with attitude, behavior and performance problems can disproportionately and negatively impact the front line supervisor/manager.

Should you accept or correct unacceptable behaviors?

Dealing with difficult employee behaviors is a challenge for most supervisors and managers. Unlike a tangible performance problem like low output, quality defects or failing to report to work, a behavior problem might appear to be independent of job performance.

Is a behavior problem, a performance problem?

Some employees with negative behaviors are actually quite productive. That is a contributing reason to why front line leaders put up with behaviors they shouldn’t. In fact, an employee who gets his work done but negatively impacts his co-workers is causing a performance problem, in other employees.

Putting up with it and three consequences

Some supervisors choose to let it go, convincing themselves that they should put up with the behavior instead of correcting it, or perhaps talking themselves out of correction, preferring to keep the employee rather than risk losing them. By putting up with unacceptable behavior, the front line leader is causing three undesirable consequences: 1. Decline in performance and attitude from other employees, 2. Loss of respect from management 3. More frustration for the supervisor/manager.

What if the environment doesn’t reward confronting the unacceptable?

Supervisors will complain that disciplinary actions are not backed up by HR or their manager. And in some cases, this is true. Part of the reason is that HR and management do not directly suffer the consequences of a badly behaving employee in the same way as the supervisor does. As long as the work is getting done and the results are being generated, the manager might prefer to leave well enough alone.

More likely is the fact that a supervisor often hasn’t done a good job of documenting the behavior, hasn’t attempted to correct it through a conversation and generally has allowed the behavior to go on for some time before finally tiring of it.

The Car Wash or Group Spank

Instead of confronting the specific employees who are breaking the rules or being disrespectful, the manager opts to bring everyone together for some training. The good employees resent the implication that they are presumed guilty, and the employees who should be ‘getting the message’ often assume the message is targeted at someone else. The worst offenders blissfully continue their unacceptable behaviors while the workgroup morale suffers.


Every front line supervisor or manager should keep a notebook for observations. By carrying a notebook, the front line leader can jot down employee suggestions and questions, being sure not to forget to get back to the employee later. In the case of unacceptable behaviors the supervisor can make a note of what is observed and reported.

Dealing with the Informant

Supervisors can’t see everything or everyone all the time. Fortunately, helpful employees will bring a situation to the supervisor’s attention. The question is, should the supervisor act on the information immediately? The answer is, it depends. A serious violation including a safety incident, theft, assault or harassment brings with it a duty for the supervisor to take action immediately. It might trigger an investigation to gather the facts. Not taking action could be grounds for disciplining or terminating the supervisor.

In the case of relatively minor, yet annoying behaviors such as negativity, tardiness coming back from breaks, lack of teamwork, gossip, excess socializing to name a few, the supervisor will ideally want to observe the behavior directly. Usually informants will not want to go ‘on the record’ with their complaint which can tie the hands of the supervisor. The front line leader will lose respect and cause damage to the teamwork in his department if he approaches an employee and says, “Someone told me you are taking too long coming back from breaks.” The employee will want to know who the snitch was and can deny the allegation.

Consistency with Colleagues

Having some supervisors being too tough, while others are too soft will cause legitimate complaints from employees who feel that the standards are not consistent. It is better to have all the front line leaders being consistent, firm and fair when dealing with performance and behavior situations.

Tips for Dealing with Unacceptable Behaviors

  1. Clarify your expectations for behaviors by meeting with employees one on one. This is a great preventative measure to head off problems in advance. The book Employees Not Doing What You Expect offers many helpful suggestions. If the expectations have been set but not consistently enforced, then give employees a heads up that the expectations have increased.
  2. Observe and document – keep good notes on issues, what you observed, how you have addressed them, and what the employee said in return. Keep these notes indefinitely and keep them secure.
  3. Comment and question – Most behavior and performance issues can be dealt with through a comment or question from the supervisor. Only a relatively small number of issues will require more formal discipline.
  4. Consult HR and management in advance – Instead of hoping that HR and management will back you up after the fact, approach them in advance to discuss the situation and get support in advance to correct the situation. In some organizations, HR will need to be involved in formal discipline.
  5. Have the correcting conversation – Ideally, the direct supervisor or manager should deliver the corrective feedback because it builds respect and asserts the leadership responsibility of the front line leader.
  6. Follow-up – If the behavior or performance problem continues, then escalate the consequences. Your organization might have a set of clear guidelines for progressive discipline. If the problem is resolved, be sure to provide positive feedback and appreciation.

The good news is that the diligent front line leader can set the tone for his or her workgroup and then the number of problems will diminish substantially. Be firm and fair and you’ll gain the respect of the workgroup and management.