Working in Harmony

Workplace bullies. Toxic employees and work environments. These are some topics that I’ve seen out in the blogosphere or tweeted about recently. So what do you do? Coach them? Put them on a performance improvement plan? Remove them from the team and make them an individual contributor? Bottom line: ask yourself, “What’s the problem?” By the way, that’s a chapter title in The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, but it’s a question you’ve got to ask so you can determine the best way to address the problem, whatever it is.

For example, the problem could be any of the following:

· Someone who has a negative attitude that infects the rest of the team – the naysayer – the person who crushes creativity with a phrase such as “That won’t work” or “We’ve always done it this way!”
· Someone whose jokes and comments get out of hand and there’s a real potential for harassment;
· Someone who dominates meetings, cutting everyone else off or worse, hijacking the meeting with his or her own agenda – subtle or not so subtle forms of bullying

All of these are examples of poor behavior – not performance – in the workplace. Conduct is about how people are expected to behave at work. When an employee exhibits behavior that is inappropriate in a business environment, there is a conduct problem.

So what’s an organization to do? Clearly crafted policies can be an organization’s best way to address these issues because policies provide guidance (not mandates) for management. You do necessarily need to have a policy that addresses every type of poor behavior. Consider an employee conduct policy that defines categories of conduct that are unacceptable and could lead to management action. At the top of the list – Inability or Unwillingness to Work Harmoniously with Others. Do any of the above examples fit this category? They absolutely do! Your conduct policy also needs guidance on management responses to inappropriate behavior.

Of course, there will be situations where the nature of the conduct warrants a stand-alone policy, such as workplace harassment which has legal implications. Your harassment policy should tie to the conduct policy. What I mean is that if someone’s jokes and comments are leaning toward harassment, you can reference both the conduct policy and harassment policy when you address the behavior. All your policies should work in harmony with each other!

Address the problem – don’t move it somewhere else in the organization. Even an individual contributor has to interact with others. In addressing toxic workplace behavior, a very clear message needs to be sent:

· Describe the disruptive behavior that is occurring
· Describe the impact that the behavior is having on others in the organization
· Describe what will happen next: support, if any, that the organization can offer (such as a referral to the employee assistance program); further management action if the behavior does not stop or change

Think of your organization as an orchestra. Your policies and process are the musical pieces or compositions and your employees are the players or orchestra members. Is there harmony among all of these parts of your organization? If not, what steps will you as a leader or the conductor take to bring the harmony back?

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