Dealing with Disruptive Employees

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

When do you take disciplinary action against an employee?

The answer probably is “when he or she does something wrong”, and the situation is clear cut. But sometimes the situation is not clear cut, and your response to the question is “when his or her behaviour has got so bad that I need to do something”. This last case suggests that behaviour has been bad for some time, has got steadily worse, and has now reached a point where you can tolerate it no longer. One can easily say that you should have taken action as soon as things took a turn for the worse, but we tend to exercise a degree of tolerance by putting up with small imperfections in people’s behaviour, or we trust that their behaviour will change for the better without our intervention. This is understandable – but not acceptable in the workplace. We have to ensure that people behave properly and, if at times they do not, we need to nip the problem in the bud. If we fail to do so, our inaction will be seen as weakness and a tacit signal that poor behaviour is acceptable. This behaviour is then likely to get worse, will spread to other people, and employees who by nature are well behaved will lose respect for their managers. Bad behaviour, if allowed to go unchecked, thus disrupts the organisation and the efficiency and morale of the people who work in it.

Usually you can stop the growth of disruptive behaviour simply by pointing out to the employee concerned that the particular action, though perhaps seemingly inoffensive, is unacceptable. However, if you have allowed the poor behaviour to develop and spread to other people, you have a more difficult problem. Nevertheless speak to the culprits and explain to them in a firm but friendly way that what they are doing must cease. Probably you will have greater impact by speaking to them individually such that the conversation is more personal and direct, and so that they do not draw support from each other, but deal with them together if you feel that will be the better way. Make quite clear that what they are doing is in breach of your rules and their contract of employment, and is having an adverse effect on the organisation and their colleagues. By all means listen to anything they have to say, but equally insist that your standards are the ones that they must adhere to, and that you are entitled to judge when they are in breach. The culprits may not realise what they are doing and the effect of their actions on the organisation, so make this quite clear to them. Conversely refuse to accept that their colleagues do not mind or that the disruptive behaviour is really quite harmless.

If your remonstrations are not immediately successful, ask the culprits why they feel a need to behave in the way they do. Is it bravado, in which case what are they trying to prove? And is the workplace really the best place to prove it? Or are they seeking revenge against the employer, you, their colleagues or society as a whole? If so, why? You are not looking for meaningful answers but rather causing the employees to reflect on their behaviour and why they practise it. Regardless of what they say, insist that you are entitled to have them work and behave to your standards, and make clear that you will insist that they do so. Do not give them a formal warning initially, but rather point out that you will be watching their behaviour closely and will take action if they disappoint. Obviously offer any advice or training that now appears to be necessary.

The workplace is a relatively safe place for people with domestic or other private problems to give vent to their frustrations by being disruptive. They cannot for example argue with their partner, cannot control their children, cannot afford to get the car fixed and cannot pay off their debts, so they let out their feelings at work, sometimes by major outbursts of anger and indiscipline, but more often by being difficult to authority in the form of the employer and its managers. If you suspect that this is the case, give them opportunity to talk to you about their problem, see if there is anything you can do to help but, above all, show empathy, though make clear that this will not cause you to lower your required standards. If there are underlying problems that you cannot resolve, refer the employees to your HR staff, or point them towards appropriate external agencies such as a counsellor or an advice bureau.

When you have said all that you feel needs to be said, summarise the issue, what has been discussed and what you now expect, write it down, and then read it back to the employee. Ideally have the employee agree the accuracy of the note and then commit to improve to the standard required. Afterwards monitor the employee regularly and point out immediately any minor deviation from the standard you have stipulated. After a while have a further meeting with the employee, comment on what you have observed, compliment him or her if behaviour has indeed improved, point out anything that still needs attention – but take firm action if you believe that the employee has not made sufficient effort. Now is the time to give an official warning. This should include a clear statement of the standard required, the word “warning” must be emphasised, and you should indicate what is likely to happen if the employee fails to improve satisfactorily. All of this must be done strictly in accordance with your organisation’s discipline procedure.

If the employee consistently fails to behave, then the ultimate sanction is dismissal. This may appear to be an extreme reaction to what may be relatively minor but consistently bad behaviour, but the contract you have with your employees requires them to perform and behave to your standards, and failure to do this constitutes a breach of that contract. Help them if they have difficulty with those standards, but otherwise recognise that their presence in your organisation is disruptive and requires their presence to be dispensed with.


Managing Grievances

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