One of the problems with a growing business is that you have to hire employees. Since this means dealing with humans, all sorts of difficulties can arise. One of the more challenging issues relates to the problem employee who seems unable to evaluate and censor inappropriate remarks.
The comments they make can range from mildly offensive (“Hey, you look really hungover this morning. Did you have a wild night?) to remarks that border on racism and sexism. You may hear those that cross that border, and in some cases, to behavior that could be seen as verbal bullying and harassment.
You May Not Know About It – At Least, At First
Often the offender may be on his or her best behavior around you, or at least behavior that flies under the radar of what you would notice. Your first indication that something’s wrong might come when you notice one employee overtly avoid another. At this point, you may want to discreetly question a trusted and reliable employee about what’s going on.
Another indication of trouble might be when you ask an employee to work on a project with a particular person, and she hesitates or says she’d rather not. At that point, you need to ask questions.
An employee or group of employees may also confront you with a direct complaint.
Why This Behavior Harms Your Business
It affects morale. People are tense and on edge.
It reduces productivity. People don’t want to work with the offender. They may go out of their ways to avoid him/her. They may feel resentful and threatened.
A toxic work environment can quickly lead to absenteeism, turnover and low morale.
Your attorney clients may tell you about an unpleasant experience they had with an employee. Worse yet, they may simply stop using your services rather than to deal with your problem employee.
You may be legally obligated to take action. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines offensive conduct as including “offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.”
That behavior becomes illegal harassment if it creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment.
Your company can be held liable for this kind of work environment. You don’t want that to happen. More important, from a practical and moral viewpoint, you don’t want to permit that kind of atmosphere. You want your employees to know that you support their right to work in a comfortable setting.
You Know Where the Buck Stops
In cases where an employee’s behavior poses a legal threat to your business, you may need to explore the possibility of termination. Probably your best bet is to consult with a lawyer.
With milder cases, you can choose a softer approach, while making clear that you are giving the employee a warning. Make sure that you have as many facts as you can gather and that you can speak calmly to the employee.
Do Your Best to Make it a Conversation
Begin by telling the problem employee you want a work environment where people work as a team with mutual respect. Follow this with a recitation of the information you received.
Unless necessary, don’t name the employee(s) who gave you the information. If the problem employee to whom you’re speaking disputes the facts, you may need to bring the injured parties into the discussion. Often, though, the mere suggestion that you will do this will subdue the employee.
Give the Employee the Benefit of the Doubt
Sometimes people don’t realize that they’ve made offensive remarks. Ask the person how he or she saw the offending actions. This makes the conversation seem less like an attack, and this allows the individual to be more receptive.
If it becomes clear that the employee was truly attempting to bully or insult another, you need to change tactics. You now have absolute confirmation of the other employee’s complaints. At this point, you can say, “What you did (said) was offensive (or discrimination).” You may add that it might be illegal.
Your next move will depend on various factors: how long you’ve had the employee, how valuable he/she is to you, how willing you think he/she is to change. Firing would be the nuclear option; you may want instead to look at counseling, sensitivity training, and similar possibilities.
You do want to take a definite action that will show the other employees that you care about their well-being and comfort.
And you care about your business. You aren’t going to let offensive behavior damage it.
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