Bad Behavior at Work

Using Clear Criteria to Identify and Deal With Offenders

Don't let one "bad apple" spoil a healthy team.

© iStockphoto/dchadwick

What constitutes bad behavior in the workplace? Let's look at an example.

Ian's an engineer in the aerospace industry. He's exceptionally knowledgeable, and puts in long hours working on his projects. But his manner with his colleagues is curt, to say the least. For several years this hasn't overly upset other members of his team – an easy-going bunch who've just accepted his lack of people skills. They've generally shrugged off Ian's comments, saying things like "Ah, that's just Ian, don't mind him."

However, in the past year, a couple of team members have moved on. One of their replacements has now been off sick with stress for six weeks, and he's citing Ian's frequent unpleasant comments as the cause. As a result, the team is behind on an important project.

A year ago, Ian was making a valuable contribution to the team, but now he's the cause of various problems. Yet, he's not actually doing anything different. So was he – and is he – behaving badly?

Clearly, any definition of "bad" behavior depends on the context. We can't just say "cursing can never be tolerated" or "moaning about the boss at the water cooler is always fine". Instead, we need a reliable method of assessing whether a particular behavior is or is not acceptable, which we can apply to any situation. Using a test like this will help all of those involved to understand why a particular behavior is unacceptable, and this in turn should play an important role in encouraging everyone to stamp it out.

Please note that this article is about behavior that is legal, but questionable, and which is not covered by existing organizational policies or by established professional ethics. By contrast, illegal behavior, such as discrimination, is clearly never acceptable. If faced with such a situation, you may want to read the Mind Tools article on Whistleblowing  .

How can "bad behavior" be defined?

J Richard Hackman, in his book Leading Teams, observes that effective teams:

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