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HR pro or hall monitor? Dealing with childish behavior at work

by Boyd Byers

Several HR managers I work with sometimes refer to employees as their “children” and joke that at times (particularly when they’re dealing with their “problem children”), they feel more like grade-school teachers than HR managers. A recent study reaffirms the inherent truth in this analogy. 

From the playground to the workplace
Childish behavior isn’t confined to elementary school playgrounds but is prevalent in today’s workplace, according to a new survey by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder. More than 75% of employees report that they have witnessed some type of childish behavior among colleagues in the workplace. Over half of those surveyed (55%) report whining by colleagues. (The only thing surprising here is that the number isn’t higher.) Just under half (46%) have witnessed coworkers pouting when something didn’t go their way. (That seems about right.)

But what surprised me are the high rates of truly juvenile behavior, such as making a face behind someone’s back (35%), forming a clique (32%), starting a rumor about a coworker (30%), storming out of the room (29%), throwing a temper tantrum (27%), and refusing to share resources with others (23%). No wonder HR managers sometimes feel like elementary-school teachers!

So how big is the problem? Dale Carnegie taught us that when dealing with people, we need to remember that we aren’t dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion. When humans are involved, emotions can trigger illogical, even childish, behavior. When such behavior is demeaning or distracting to others, it’s unquestionably inappropriate.

Childish behavior is bad for business. It’s disruptive, destroys morale, and hurts productivity. It also creates legal headaches—particularly when it manifests itself as harassment, bullying, or cliquishness.

Strategies for HR
So what should you do? Hopefully, you already have a lawyer-vetted antiharassment policy in place and you provide annual harassment training for your employees. (That should be a given.) You should also consider expanding your training to include reminders about basic civility.

Beyond that, some progressive employers are now providing simple assertiveness training to teach employees appropriate strategies for identifying and acting on their desires and needs while remaining respectful to others. If employees are empowered with the ability to act on their concerns assertively (rather than aggressively, passively, or, worst of all, passive-aggressively), they will feel better about themselves and be less likely to say and do things that make the people around them feel bad.

Team building and social events may also help promote a more respectful work environment. As Martin Luther King, Jr., famously recognized, one of the reasons people fail to get along is because they don’t know each other and don’t take the time to communicate with each other.

Of course, HR vigilance is important, too. Get out into the work environment on a regular basis so you know the people and the pulse of the workplace. And when instances of bad behavior come to your attention, nip them in the bud by promptly investigating and taking appropriate remedial action.

All I really need to know about HR I learned in kindergarten?
Dealing with childish behavior in the workplace brings to mind Robert Fulghum’s now-classic 1988 essay, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulghum theorized that we learned the essential things we need to know about how to live and what to do in kindergarten, not in graduate school. Things like:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • When you go out into the world, hold hands and stick together.
  • Remember to look.

These things, which hold “true and clear and firm,” can be extrapolated into adult terms and applied to our family and work. Why is something that seems so simple so difficult for so many people?

Boyd Byers is a partner with Foulston Siefkin LLP in Wichita, Kansas. You can contact him at

Still need help? Are your problem employees a little past “childish” behavior? Difficult or bullying behavior can, in some cases, even reach the level of unlawful harassment. If you don’t take prompt and effective steps to correct or prevent it, the resulting liability can be immense. You can’t change the personalities of your employees, but you can coach difficult employees to minimize the impact of bad behavior and prevent everyday disagreements from blowing up into full-blown conflicts. Listen to the BLR webinar Get in Front of Your “Difficult” Employee Problem: Conflict Management and Mitigation Strategies That Work on-demand to learn how to identify difficult employees, address their behavior, and respond to conflict with smart management strategies that build a stronger workplace.  For more information, click here.