Problem employees, or problematic behavior, can be a morale killer in the workplace. But yet, it seems to persist in most workplaces. Why might that be?
There are actually a lot of reasons why we ignore bad employee behavior, and most of them are not simple. Let’s take a look at some of the common reasons problem behavior gets ignored:
- Many managers are conflict-averse, which means they would prefer to put off the tough conversations. This desire to avoid conflict is a perfectly normal one, but doesn’t always work well in a work environment. In reality, being conflict-averse often means that problem behavior gets ignored instead of addressed. A related issue may be an issue of training. A manager may have the desire to address problematic behavior, but may feel at a loss as to how best to proceed. This can be especially problematic if the manager has attempted to resolve issues in the past without good results.
- Employers may be wary of treating any employee differently than any other, which can unfortunately mean that they ignore context as well and simply follow past precedent, even if the precedent is bad. For example, if two different employees are involved in minor altercations, but the first one was not disciplined, it may be tempting to skip discipline for the second one in the interest of fairness—even if the situation and context differ.
- Sometimes, employees who occasionally exhibit problematic behavior also happen to be top performers the rest of the time, making it much more difficult to contemplate disciplining them or doing something that may result in losing the high-performing employee. Essentially, the bad behavior gets ignored while the good behavior is the focus of praise.
- When a manager is the one exhibiting bad behavior, employees may feel they have no recourse to address the issue without risking their jobs in the process. Not everyone feels they have a choice of getting another job—so instead, they put up with problems at work and don’t say anything.
- Managers may feel constricted by legal concerns. For example, perhaps the employee exhibiting problematic behavior belongs to a protected class or has previously been involved in some type of protected behavior (such as taking Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave). The manager may fear that enacting any disciplinary action—even if warranted—may look retaliatory or discriminatory. This fear is not unfounded, but managers need training on how to separate these issues.
- Managers or the HR department may fear a wrongful termination claim, and instead choose to take less drastic actions.
- Employees have the right to discuss—and complain—about their working environment. This complaining may across as combative and seem inappropriate. The catch here is that employers have to walk a fine line with employees who routinely seem combative and argumentative (and even rude). If the employees are complaining about problems they see as legitimate, that behavior may be protected.
- Problematic behavior may not surface all at once. Sometimes, the progression is slow enough or incremental enough that it’s easy to overlook any individual instance—and it only looks problematic when taken as a whole. The real problem then, is that it will appear to be an over-reaction if the employer disciplines or terminates an employee on the basis of a pattern of behavior if that pattern was never addressed before that moment.
What have you found to be reasons problem employees get ignored? What did you do to reverse the situation?