Dealing with Employees who Push their LuckTuesday, February 7th, 2012
Advice about dealing with bad behaviour usually addresses clear issues such as lateness, absenteeism, theft or other topics that are reasonably clear and definable. However some employees are not quite that bad, are barely over the line, are not all that bad – or whatever phrase we choose to justify our not taking action against them. But they are irritants because they do in practice cause problems in the workplace. It’s just that they, well, cannot really be taken to task, can they? And if that is a genuine question, then the clear answer is – yes, they must be disciplined. It’s not that they have an inborn quality of being almost but not quite good; they push their luck. They misbehave just short of the point where they believe that they will be disciplined. But disciplined they must be if you are to maintain a harmonious workforce.
What stops us taking action is probably our fear of being seen to be vindictive and therefore losing the respect of our employees. In fact the converse is true because everyone recognises that these people are playing the system, and they will expect you to do something about it. You will lose your employees’ respect if you fail to take action to stamp out irritating behaviour. Moreover you probably will find that other employees begin to lower their standards either consciously because they can see that it doesn’t matter or unconsciously because they feel no pressure to do a really good job.
Your employment rules and regulations doubtless reflect the reasonable behaviour of civilised people. By and large they should not be open to personal interpretation. If the start time is 8.30, an employee arriving at 8.31 is late, and if you fail to take action against that employee, you are signalling clearly that the start time is there for guidance only and poor timekeeping is acceptable. Many decent employees will resent this. Similarly threshold statements do more harm than good. In this example, if you say that action will be taken against anyone arriving more than five minutes late, you are in effect saying that the start time is 8.35 and are encouraging employees to play the system.
If employees are breaking rules, tell them so. Explain that rules are made to be complied with, not broken, and that employees who break rules, even slightly, are failing to honour their contractual obligations. Reject as ludicrous any comment that rules are meant to be broken. Suggest for example that you plan to pay them a bit less than their normal salary because it makes preparation of the payroll easier, and how do they feel about that?
The solution to this is the practice of zero tolerance. It may seem harsh, but your better behaved employees will respect you for applying it. Whenever an employee does something that is wrong, speak to him or her promptly. Point out what is wrong and if appropriate enquire why it was done. Why was the employee late? If the reason was a domestic illness and the employee is a good timekeeper, you should express sympathy and perhaps offer support. But if the reason appears to be that the employee got up late, a mild rebuke should follow. If lateness is repeated, have a more pointed conversation, explain why persistent lateness is unacceptable, and seek a commitment to better behaviour from the employee. A useful way to end a disciplinary interview is to ask “So what are you going to do about it?”, and insist on an answer. There is no guarantee that such a commitment will bring compliance, but this technique is powerful and frequently does bring about a change in behaviour.
Some behaviour is of course subjective. Certain swear words are offensive to some people and not to others. An employee’s moaning and groaning may bother some colleagues but be tolerable to others. So should you take action against these employees? The critical question is – is their behaviour acceptable to you and to your team? If not, then you should take appropriate action because nobody should be bothered by the behaviour of another employee. Talk to the employee and point out what is concerning you, but do not make threats as the employee may not be aware that his or her behaviour is causing such concern. This conversation may be sufficient to cure the problem, but again, seek a commitment, as described above.
Often people who push their luck are not hardened sinners; they just want to see how far they can go before they elicit a reaction from you. To them it is a game, a challenge. Dealing promptly with them is likely to resolve most problems but, if the employee fails to respond, you may have to take more formal disciplinary action. Match your response to the nature and severity of the problem. Your employees will respect you for doing so.