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14 April 2009 8:59am

Employers can quickly nip difficult and negative employee behaviour in the bud – while maintaining workplace harmony – by being “hard on the behaviour, but soft on the person”, says New Zealand workplace consultant and psychologist, Dr Steven Saunders.

“A stitch in time saves nine,” Saunders told HR Daily.

Far too many employers, he says, let negative behaviour get out of control because they are too laid back or prefer to shy away from dealing with the issue.

But confronting workers who are failing to live up to the organisation’s code of conduct doesn’t have to be emotional, tense or difficult, Saunders says. Managers must be prepared to have “a straight-up chat” with difficult workers and specifically address their positive and negative behaviours.

Employers should also spell out the code of conduct applying to workers – from the outset of their tenure – and the kind of behaviour that’s expected of them, he says.

Every documented job description, he says, should include a clause requiring the employee “to be a positive, willing, contributing and adaptable member of the team at all times”.

“Well poisoners”
Difficult or negative employees usually fall into one of two camps, Saunders says.

The employee with a “bad attitude” tends to be excessively grumpy, pessimistic and sarcastic, has negative body language and is generally a low performer.

The “well poisoner”, on the other hand, can be intimidating, devious, self-serving and self-centred – and, quite often, a high performer.

Their behaviour often goes undetected, or is ignored, he says, and they can rapidly work their way up through the ranks, disrupting the function of the team and alienating talent in the process.

Well poisoners, therefore, must be identified during the recruitment process, Saunders says. He recommends that employers:
contact verbal referees and ask them frankly if the candidate was disruptive or problematic, and have them outline in detail the reasons the candidate left the job; and

include at least one woman on the interview panel. Women have a “sixth sense” for well poisoners, Saunders says.
When dealing with well poisoners in the workplace, managers should “do the research and stick to their guns”.

“Well poisoners can be cunning to the point of being treacherous,” he warns.

Six key trigger points
Successfully stamping out negative employee behaviour or attitude in the workplace hinges on identifying and acting on the cause, Saunders says. Negative behaviour can usually be traced to at least one of six root causes, or “trigger points”.

These are:
Leadership – employers should examine themselves and their leadership team. Strong leaders are highly visible, lead by example on company values and are excellent and proactive communicators.

Poor leaders are less visible, “shadowy figures” with low emotional intelligence, and can be identified “through the people” – or by a higher-than-expected number of poor performances.

“The buck’s got to stop with the leader.”

Fit – a high proportion of difficult employees don’t belong in their job or environment; their personality clashes with the nature of their tasks. A person with “high drive” but “low compliance”, for example, would most likely prove unsuitable for a position in a “high compliance” field, such as banking or accounting.

“It is well worth profiling candidates for their fit to the job and culture.”

Energy levels – “There are a lot of people at the moment who are tired, unfit and spend too much time on computers.”

Managers should have a “frank and open discussion” with workers suffering from lethargy to identify the cause and come up with solutions, such as an exercise program or designated breaks away from the desk.

Heart – at the end of the day, lots of people would rather be doing something else, Saunders says. Referring to US research, he says that 70 per cent of company executives would prefer to be in a different job providing they maintained their income.

However, if a worker’s heart is not in the job – to the extent that they are counter-productive – then it is time for all parties to make a “frank” decision about the employee’s future in the role.

Psychological issues – many employees are stressed and distressed, and “stagger from one crisis to another” in their personal lives.

Employers should carefully consider the workplace factors that can contribute to stress, such as understaffing, and bear in mind their legal responsibility to “lighten up a little”.

Tools and training – “You can hardly blame an employee for being grumpy and difficult when they’re set up for failure through lack of training or resources.”

Employees can feel they’re in a no-win situation, giving rise to negative behaviour.


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