Standards of behaviour in the workplace
Standards of behaviour
Posted by Stuart Falconer • June 14, 2021

Stuart Falconer shares some real-life stories and important advice on dealing with standards of behaviour in the workplace . . .

I have worked in HR for over 20 years and throughout my career have spent a large amount of time advising on standards of behaviour in one way or another.

When businesses reach out to me for support, the most common request is advice on how to deal with a difficult employee. It could be one who is either underperforming or demonstrating poor conduct in the workplace.

The first question I ask is, ‘How long has this been happening for?’. Would it surprise you that most behaviour-related problems have been present and left undealt with for a significant period of time?

In this post, we’ll take a look at:

  • How I worked closely with a businesses to help them manage workplace behaviour.
  • The impact of promoting positive behaviour rather than just dealing with negative behavioural issues as and when they arise.
  • Plus, I’ll provide a simple starting guide for implementing a standards of behaviour policy or code of conduct in the workplace.
Bad behaviour and the ripple effect

For over 10 years, an employee of a manufacturing business I was working with had exhibited poor behaviour without any repercussions. (To date, this is the longest case of bad behaviour I’ve encountered.) The management team had routinely passed line management responsibility from one manager to another. None of them were equipped to deal with the problem at hand, therefore it just kept on getting worse and worse.

What’s the consequence of kicking the can down the road?

In most cases, it’s that the employee in question isn’t held accountable for their actions and as a result doesn’t change their behaviour. They realise that they can act how they want without the fear of sanctions or getting into trouble!

Think about what that can mean to the rest of the team. It wouldn’t be surprising if resentment builds up and performance suffers as a result. Colleagues would be left wondering why they’re expected to play by the rules and work hard when someone else is allowed to get away with such poor conduct. Perhaps the other employees even start to reflect this type of behaviour, taking liberties as they see it going unpunished.

Just imagine what impact that ripple effect would have on the business!

Poor conduct can and most likely will be detrimental to the performance of the entire team. How do you go about dealing with it?

Using a behaviour policy to prevent workplace misconduct

I always suggest that the first step any company should take is to outline the standards of behaviour expected from all the staff. It’s incredibly simple: ‘this is what we expect from you and this is how we expect you to do it’. This is a Standards of Behaviour Policy. It can be as detailed as you wish and you can set as many standards as you want.

Start by listing out the standards you wish to introduce – you can add in the details later. It’s a good idea to have a think about any instances of bad behaviour that have already occurred in the workplace, especially if they are a common occurrence.

An example of a standard you might want to set is timekeeping. Honestly, I don’t know many workplaces where this hasn’t been an issue. It can be a major problem. It doesn’t take much to recognise the negative impact it’s likely to have on the rest of the team. In fact, I can give you a great example . . .

Poor timekeeping: a personal experience
Scenario #1

Years ago, when starting a new job, I was up and dressed nice and early. Arriving just prior to my 9am start, I sat outside the office feeling nervous. It was also really important to me to make a positive impression.

No word of a lie, it turned out that I was the only person out of the whole department that was on time and ready to work. There were 20 or so people in that department and the new boy was the only person on time!

At about 9.10, my new manager rushed round the corner, papers flying everywhere. She gave me a handbook, asked me to go and sit at a desk to read it and said she’d get back to me later that day.

For three hours, I sat there reading that handbook. I was surrounded by people I hadn’t even been introduced to. I’d not been shown around my new workplace. Nothing had been explained to me.

What do you think was going through my mind? I sat there wondering whether I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I should have been feeling delighted to be there!

Scenario #2

Compare that to the last permanent role I had. When I turned up on the first day, there was my desk, my stationery and passwords with login details. More importantly, there was an induction checklist detailing what I was to be doing for the first two weeks of employment.

That was more like it!

Unfortunately, one of my first tasks was to take a group of colleagues to one side and scold them for being late. One was late by 8 minutes, two of them had been 4 minutes late and the fourth was late by just 1 minute.

I can already hear you querying whether it was an overreaction to have a conversation with someone for being a single minute late. But here’s the thing! That company had set clear expectations, in writing, for all employees to be at their desk and ready to start work at 9am. To achieve this, you need to get to the office at least a few minutes beforehand.

The majority of us generally aimed to get there at 8:45. This ensured we had the time to do things like hang coats up, make a cup of tea and even say a quick ‘Hello’ to colleagues. But when the clock struck 9am, you were at your desk and doing what you were paid to do.

The moral of the story is . . .

It didn’t seem to matter one bit what time I turned up at the first company. If it didn’t matter, then I didn’t have to bust a gut getting there on time.

With the second company, I set my alarm for an hour earlier. I never wanted to be late as it would have sent an entirely wrong message to the team. How could I chastise someone for being late if I couldn’t be on time myself?

That’s two entirely different cultures with two entirely different approaches to timekeeping. One had a very relaxed approach to it and the other didn’t! One was determined to make sure that standards were set extremely high and that expectations were clear: if you want to work for us, then you must be at your desk and ready to work at your start time.

Expectations, accountability and consequences

If you take anything away from this blog, it will likely be the same thing you take away from all my blogs! Expectations – Accountability – Consequences.

Expectations are easy. It’s as simple as putting in writing ‘this is what we expect from you and this is how we expect you to do it’.

Accountability is also easy: ‘as the person we have employed to do the job, you should take personal responsibility for ensuring you meet our expectations’.

Simple, right? Yes, BUT – and this is where so many employers go wrong – there has to be a consequence to not meeting those standards.

Consequences should also be easy, yet they can be difficult to implement. If you can make it clear from the outset what the expectations are and what the possible consequences will be, staff will know exactly where they stand. It’s then down to each individual employee to decide whether they’re prepared to meet the standards set for them by their employer. If they choose to ignore the policy, the employer has every right to discipline them.

You can read more about expectations, accountability and consequences here.

Guidance for employers

If you’re an employer, start with a list of the standards you want to introduce. Your standards don’t have to be excessively lenient, nor do they have to be excessively harsh, so why not set those standards somewhere in between, somewhere that suits the culture of the company?

Outline the expectations. Demand that staff take personal responsibility for adhering to the standards. Remind them that continued failure to meet those standards may well result in disciplinary action.

No one really wants to discipline people, but then again remember how much of a problem timekeeping can be and the ripple effect. Maybe there’s another more pressing concern in the business that needs addressing. Answering the phone after so many rings perhaps? Or ensuring reports are completed and filed on time?

It’s entirely up to you. Get started by listing out your priorities for employee behaviour.

(Note: If your list is excessively long, it’s likely that you’re actually talking about a wider form of cultural change. Consider whether it’s reasonable to expect everyone to be able to absorb a whole raft of changes all in one go.)

As always, I’m on hand to support you with any HR related questions. I’ve been creating policies for and with businesses for over 20 years, encountering all sorts of standards and common behaviour issues along the way. If you’d like some help or just an initial informal chat, email Stuart.Falconer@morganthomsonhr.co.uk or give me a call on 0345 095 0139.