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Costly but correctable: Bad behaviour at work, and what HR can do about it

Bullying, racism and sexual harassment have no place in the modern workplace. These illegal behaviours damage individuals and also damage the company, by pulling teams off track, distracting high performers, creating unnecessary rifts and damaging productivity.


Yet bad behaviour is all too common. In 2016 research by Dr Lindsay McMillan, 14 percent of workers described their workplace environment as 'toxic', and 20 percent had experienced major problems in communication with a co-worker or boss. A 2009 study found that throughout New Zealand nearly one in five people (18 percent) are bullied in the workplace, which is at the high end of reported international prevalence levels.


Not only the individual targets of bullying and harassment suffer: toxic workers have a damaging ripple effect on their co-workers. In a 2015 Harvard Business School report, Michael Housman and Dylan Minor claim that having a toxic employee on the payroll costs the average business an additional $15,169 per year, primarily due to loss of valued team members who can no longer tolerate the negative atmosphere that the toxic employee creates.


Even modest levels of toxic behaviour can cause major costs and lost opportunities to the employer organisation, including loss of customers, decreased employee morale, increased turnover and loss of legitimacy amongst external stakeholders.


The good news? Minimising and addressing bad behaviour in the workplace can generate huge savings for employers, and there are clear actions that HR can take.


  1. Review the data

Bad behaviour in the workplace is often hidden from view. The many accounts that emerged in the recent #metoo movement showed that sophisticated bullies and sexual harassers often work behind the scenes, targeting an individual when no one else is present to witness their misconduct. However, the consequences of a workplace culture that allows sexist, racist or aggressive conduct are harder to hide.


Review the data that is available to you in Human Resources. Look for patterns and signs of distraction, disengagement and distress of employees. Turnover statistics, absenteeism rates and exit interviews are particularly revealing, as well as longitudinal analysis of employee engagement surveys if you run them annually. Put together the data with your own knowledge of cultural issues and anecdotal evidence of certain managers' styles - what is the data telling you? Are there 'hotspots' of dissatisfaction? Are risks to the company heightened in certain teams or division?


  1. Train front line managers

The research and statistics - as well as high profile cases of sexual harassment and bullying, reported here and overseas - prove that good workplace conduct is a legitimate focus for employers. There is a clear business case for addressing bad behaviour early and fearlessly, so develop skills in managers to identify the early signs of unethical conduct, and how to manage disciplinary issues. Build accountability in staff to do something about bad behaviour when they become aware of it.


In your training and development calendars, ensure staff are trained in having difficult conversations, how to be an active bystander, and the basics of adverse action, discrimination and bullying.


  1. Discourage toxic behaviour

The next step is to ensure that the workplace culture actively discourages toxic behaviour. Think about the various signals that employees receive about ethics in your organisation. These include strong statements in employment policies and internal communications that bad behaviour will not be tolerated, and organisational responses to incidents that prove this to be true.


If there is a disconnect between the values that the organisation says it believes in and the operational reality, you can take steps to address that. Ensure that values such as respect, equity and accountability are truly front and centre in the organisation's decisions and actions.


Address behaviour that's 'toxic at the top' - because, as we all know, the conduct of leaders and managers sets the ethical tone for the rest of the business. Are they walking the talk? Does the CEO need to have a quiet word with one of her direct reports? Could a coach help to build self-awareness and self-control in a 'rockstar' executive who misbehaves?


  1. Build channels of reporting

The groundswell of #metoo complaints - including naming and shaming harassers on social media - increased the recognition that complainants should be supported to speak out. Many companies quickly reviewed their own performance in handling complaints and concerns, given the reputational damage and legal risks that are created by harbouring unethical employees.


The importance of good communication channels can't be overstated, to ensure that concerns and complaints are brought to light, promptly and without fear of retribution. These channels include regular employee surveys which address culture, values and risk-taking (as well as engagement), and trusted HR managers. Do you hold forums in which employees are encouraged to express their views constructively? Do you tell staff the actions that the company has taken in response to feedback and complaints? If you were an employee who wanted to raise a genuine concern about the conduct of a senior manager, and do so anonymously, how easy would this be?


Avoiding or removing a toxic worker from your workplace delivers twice the benefit of adding a 'superstar', so can you afford to ignore toxic conduct in the workplace?




References available on request.


Rose Bryant-Smith is a Director of Worklogic, and co-author of Fix Your Team (Wiley) and Workplace Investigations (Wolters Kluver).




Removing a toxic worker from your workplace delivers twice the benefit of adding a 'superstar'