Employees Behaving Badly

Attention HR leaders: Please return your seats to their upright position, buckle your seatbelts, and prepare for more Steven Slater-style turbulence.

Slater was the JetBlue flight attendant who grabbed two beers, deployed a plane’s evacuation slide and quit his job after tussling with an unruly passenger.

Slater received his 15 minutes of fame in 2010, gaining a groundswell of support online and at office water coolers across America. But the incident cost JetBlue $25,000 to fix the slide, and the plane had to be taken out of service, causing flight delays.

In addition, while the company experienced a successful year financially, there was a dip in the fourth quarter that could be attributed to Slater’s actions and the negative publicity they created. Net income for the fourth quarter of 2010 was $9 million compared with JetBlue’s fourth quarter 2009 net income of $11 million and third quarter 2010 net income of $59 million.

“The JetBlue example is the perfect illustration of employees acting up simply to get attention,” said Dan Denison, author of “Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations: Aligning Culture and Strategy” and professor of management at Swiss business school International Institute for Management Development. “The Shakespeare quote ‘All the world’s a stage’ has never been more relevant to the workplace than now. People are tired and stressed, and with so many sharing technologies around, they have a way to show it.”

Prevent It From the Start
Employees have always encountered workplace stress, but several economic and social trends have intensified their sensitivity, and without HR and their line managers as a sounding board, they’re going to act up.

According to Gallup’s 142-country study “State of the Global Workplace,” 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. This means just one in eight workers are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations. The rest are in varying states of dissatisfaction and disengagement, and are at risk of misbehaving.

To understand why employees’ behaviors often take a sour turn, HR leaders and employees’ supervisors must focus on the ABCs, said George Bradt, founder and managing director of executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis. By ABCs, Bradt means antecedents, behaviors and consequences. And he recommends concentrating mostly on the antecedents and consequences.

In particular, Bradt said HR professionals should work with overall leadership and line management to help employees understand the negative consequences of bad behavior and the positive consequences of good behavior.

“Leaders need to do a better job promoting what they want and discouraging what they don’t want,” he said. “If it’s not communicated to employees, they’ll follow their own instincts, which can be detrimental to the business.”

John Sullivan, management professor at San Francisco State University, said the first line of defense is to educate everyone on their first day about the damage of these types of activities and the role that everyone must play in preventing them. Every new manager must be made aware of the warning signs and precursors that may alert them in advance so they can prevent these activities. All new hires should be made aware that anyone not reporting or who is involved in any way in these types of activities will be terminated immediately.

“Both employees and managers need their awareness increased by being provided with a list of the types of behaviors that must be prevented at all costs,” he said. “Managers need to be aware that their jobs are at risk if it happens under their watch, but they should also be aware of the economic impact of this bad behavior to ensure they take prevention seriously.”

Sullivan said each employee needs to be made aware that not only is there a firewall fence within the organization, but that such bad behavior may become a career-long scar that could damage their employment future. He also said everyone needs to be made aware that the negative publicity will dramatically hurt employees throughout the company, vendors and shareholders that they don’t even know.

At the American Red Cross, all new supervisors are encouraged to enroll in the company’s HR Fundamentals workshop, which introduces them to the foundational skills, competencies and processes of the organization that supervisors are responsible for managing within their role.

“We want supervisors to know it’s OK for someone to come up to them and say they have a problem with their colleague,” said Melissa B. Hurst, chief human resources officer at the American Red Cross. “We want them to know what defines harassment, how much time off they can provide employees based on certain conditions, what employees’ rights are on a local, state and federal level. We want to make HR every manager’s responsibility to ensure employees know the company’s values, their own rights, what we expect from them, but still feel comfortable to voice their opinions if they’re dissatisfied.”

For those who don’t feel comfortable discussing qualms with their supervisors, the American Red Cross has created a Concerned Connection Line that employees can call if they have a concern or witness inappropriate behavior they’d like to report anonymously.

“We have made HR a priority for managers, established core values in our organization and created a culture so employees know they’re part of our family,” said Kathleen Sack, vice president of talent and organization development for the American Red Cross. “They know they represent the family, the company and its mission. They have outlets to voice their concerns and know what is expected of them. That combination keeps them engaged in their work.”

Be on the Set
Bruce Clarke, president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, said employees act up because they’re ignored. He said employees usually don’t suddenly flip out; they give off early warning signals.

“Managers avoid conflict. They don’t act. They defer to maintain relationships,” he said.
“Discussing employees’ misbehavior from the start will avoid an epidemic. It allows the opportunity to coach and correct. But it’s not welcomed in today’s often passive business world.”

Knowing this, Kathy Young, president and CEO of St. Joseph Hospital in Kokomo, Ind., has taken her position at the executive table to the hospital floor every day for the past five years. Every morning Young has a 15-minute group huddle with the company’s leadership team. Since she initiated it, the attendance has always been more than 90 percent.

Young also created a “Call the President” hotline and provides her email address to all employees. Through these portals she urges employees to reach out with any concerns and promises to return all calls and emails within 24 hours with an action plan. All employees are also invited to eat breakfast with Young on their birthdays, where they discuss their likes and dislikes about working for the hospital, and she spends a lot of her day walking the hospital floor so employees are familiar with her presence and feel she is approachable, despite being the head of the organization.

“They don’t hesitate to pull me over in the hallway and tell me what they’re concerned about,” she said. “They don’t fear retaliation, don’t fear they’re going to get in trouble or a lecture from their leader. They feel comfortable discussing what’s on their minds, and they want to work with us to better the organization.”

Young said the key to creating this safe space is not overreacting when employees bring a problem forward. Even if she and her leadership team do not agree about the problem brought to them, they always thank employees, reassuring them that it was the right thing to do.

“The reason people stop letting you know about problems is either that you make it clear that you don’t want to hear about it, or you ignore them when they do bring problems forward,” she said. “As soon as associates believe they’re not going to get in trouble for bringing problems forward, and that if they take that risk good things are going to come for the organization, their engagement and commitment increase.”

As important as it is to give employees outlets to voice their concerns, if HR leaders or supervisors see signs of high stress levels and inappropriate behavior in employees, they must intervene. Top strategies include evaluating employee workloads, encouraging employees to take advantage of de-stressing and wellness programs and using their vacation days. Disengaged and stressed employees, those who are most likely to act up, can have a negative effect on the business. Preventing it is everyone’s job.

Those who ignore it can expect to face more Slater-like outbursts.