Bad Behavior at Work

Using Clear Criteria to Identify and Deal With Offenders

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?

Click here to view a transcript of this video.

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:

  1. Deliver outputs that are at the very least acceptable to the client (internal or external).
  2. Work together in such a way that they remain a cohesive group in the long term.
  3. Are made up of individuals who benefit from being part of the team.

Our definition of "bad behavior" comes not from what an individual person does or doesn't do, but from the overall impact that their behavior has on the team's mission and on its effectiveness. Almost all work is done by teams, so anything that harms their output is by definition unacceptable.

Applying the definitions above, we can conclude that behavior at work is "bad" if it does any one or more of the following things:

  1. Harms the team's ability to deliver to its client.
  2. Damages the cohesion of the team.
  3. Has an unnecessary adverse impact on one or more individuals within the team.

Applying these criteria to our initial example, we can say that Ian's behavior has become unacceptable because it's harming the team's ability to deliver, by causing one member to be off sick long term and thus reducing capacity. It's also obviously having an unnecessary adverse impact on that individual.

A less contentious issue might involve a computer programmer who listens to music with earbuds while working. Most of her day is spent concentrating exclusively on the code she's writing, so this doesn't directly harm the team's ability to deliver, and it's not having an adverse impact on anyone else.

But it does arguably damage the coherence of the team. By wearing her headphones, the programmer is isolating herself from those around her. She doesn't hear work-related discussions that her colleagues are having, and she doesn't get involved in any of the office banter that goes on even in conscientious, hard-working groups. As a result, her colleagues aren't enthusiastic about helping her out when she has a problem which needs their input. So, in fact, her music habit could legitimately be labeled "bad behavior", albeit very mild. (However, this has to be balanced against a possible loss of productivity if she struggles to concentrate...)

On the other hand, having clear tests helps you identify what's not bad behavior. Taking a possibly controversial example, perhaps one of your team members comes in one morning with extensive body piercing, or highly visible tattoos. If this doesn't upset the team's client, doesn't affect the team's delivery, and doesn't excessively upset other team members (tolerance of others being a necessary quality within a team), then is this really a problem?

The Impact of Bad Behavior

At a personal level, you can suffer negative effects from someone else's bad behavior, even if you're not the direct target.

At an organizational level, bad behavior can have a tangible impact on profitability. Missed objectives and declining productivity mean diminished profitability. You may find that you face increased sick days, as team members try to escape the bad behavior, or are sucked into it. Another possible consequence may be higher staff turnover, with all of the cost and time involved in hiring and training new people.

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For a discussion on some of the more extreme forms of bad behavior and their consequences, see the Mind Tools article on Bullying in the Workplace.

The Danger of Denial

People often try to rationalize bad behavior, rather than confront it. They pretend that it isn't happening, convince themselves that it's not important, or believe that it will sort itself out. This is dangerous. Someone who's deliberately behaving badly can be emboldened by such a lack of resistance, and become even more obnoxious. And, by giving rapid feedback to someone who's not aware that they're behaving badly, you can 'nip problems in the bud' before they become severe and habitual.

Using the guidelines above helps to remove doubt about the issue. While different teams may well have different standards and expectations about behavior, within a given context you can judge whether behavior is bad or not, and act appropriately.

Dealing With It

While denial is not a solution, emotional outbursts in public, on the other hand, are rarely helpful. When you need to address bad behavior, find somewhere away from other members of the team where you can ask the perceived offender to discuss the incident or issue with you.

Be ready to:

  1. Make a brief, factual summary of what happened.
  2. Explain what you feel to be the negative impact.
  3. Describe how the incident made you, or one of your team members, feel (frustrated or disappointed, for example).
  4. State how you would like to see that behavior modified, and agree some targets if appropriate.

Make sure you stay calm and objective, and be ready to listen to what the other person has to say. Remember that bad behavior can be a reaction to deeper, underlying problems, and allowing these to surface can solve all sorts of issues. Have a look at the Mind Tools article on Dealing with Difficult People for further ideas on how to handle such a situation.

Team Leader Options

Team leaders may attempt to address mild instances of bad behavior, or poor interpersonal skills, by working with the team member concerned, with a view to achieving realistic soft skill targets. This helps you to continue working with the team member, and to continue to take advantage of the specific skills and positive traits that brought this person into the team in the first place.

Where such training is not practical, or is rejected, team leaders can try to manage round the problem, either by putting the person in a form of "quarantine", so that they effectively work in isolation, or by using strong managerial control. However, neither possibility leaves much room for maximizing the benefit of team working.

Managers and Other Role Models

Be alert to the fact that there's always a risk that people start to see certain types of bad behavior as being career-enhancing, taking badly behaved individuals as role models. This can happen when managers themselves exhibit bad behavior, or when they are seen to promote someone who does.

If managers "practice what they preach" and take a visible stance against bad behavior, this will already go a long way to minimizing such problems within an organization.

Different Is Not Necessarily Bad

Finally, bear in mind that perceptions of what constitutes acceptable behavior may need to evolve as the composition of a team changes and develops. Perhaps a team member has started asking questions in meetings which have been traditionally used by the team leader to rubber stamp decisions. It would be a mistake to consider this "bad" behavior if, for example, "team cohesion" has actually just become an alias for groupthink. Having a colleague challenge "groupthink" in this way can benefit everyone by stimulating the creativity and effectiveness of the team.

Key Points

It's important to recognize when bad behavior is taking place. Left unchecked, it can have a negative impact on both people and profitability. The three rules we've outlined will help you to quickly and effectively assess behavior, in terms of its impact on team deliverables, cohesion and individual members.

If it's judged to be unacceptable, the first move should be to have a private discussion with the person who's behaved badly. Talk about what's happened, the impact it's having, and how to improve things. And, while it's vital to ensure any bad behavior is both detected and resolved, it's also key to set a good example yourself, especially if you're a manager.

Apply This to Your Life

The next time something strikes you as constituting bad behavior, you'll need to assess whether it's just different from what you would do, or whether it really is detrimental. Apply the three tests before doing anything else. For example, you might find listening to the radio in your office very distracting, but you need to recognize that it may well help your colleagues in the warehouse get through their day, as they do routine stock-picking or packing.

A warning: as a manager, you also need to be alert to behavior that on the face of it seems acceptable, but which, on inspection, is breaking one of the three rules. Having keen soccer fans in the department, with friendly rivalry between supporters of different clubs, might seem good for bonding and team interaction. However, if it turns out that team cohesion is being damaged by the presence of conflicting "soccer clans", then they're behaving badly and the problem needs to be addressed.

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Comments (15)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi JamesDavis676,

    I agree with you, that the earlier the situation is managed, the better. Thank you for your comment.
  • Over a month ago JamesDavis676 wrote
    its best to gain control over the situation at first chance
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi annedelina74,

    As the employee is a new hire, you have a great opportunity to set clear expectations about behavior before it becomes ingrained. I am making the assumption that you are the new hire's manager. Is it possible that the employee has a health or other issue that may require her/him to take lunch at different times? Once this is ruled out, deliver the feedback and establish your the expectation around taking lunch. The section on "Dealing With It" in this article outlines the steps. When you deliver the feedback be sure to have concrete examples to illustrate how taking lunch when he/she wants has impacted the team or results.

    Mind Tools Team
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