The rules of avoidance

How to deal with employee misbehavior

Fred Mael

Consider these scenarios:

Your superstar employee in marketing has a penchant for directing crude anatomical compliments toward female employees and leaving magazines open on his desk that offend additional coworkers. Your response is to issue (by email) new draconian laws forbidding any compliments by anyone about appearance, including clothing, and forbidding employees to display pictures of anyone in their offices, unless those pictured are wearing a graduation cap and gown (or more). About 99% of your employee are disgusted at being treated like children, you are blamed for ruining the organizational culture – and the superstar?, well he’s just being more subtle now…

You are told that two secretaries are abusing the flextime policy of the company – they claim to work from 6 AM until 2 PM, but actually slip in just minutes before their bosses. Rather than confronting them, you just scrap the whole policy, infuriating the many employees balancing carpools, childcare, and traffic nightmares…

Your chief financial officer tells you that a proposal went out from one of the departments full of typos and other embarrassing mistakes. In a breach of informal company policy, the proposal lead skipped the normal channels and sent it out at the last minute without any peer review. You respond by setting up a new series of procedures for proposals, complete with extra forms to fill out. Soon you hear that the new procedures are creating bottlenecks and that some proposals have come perilously close to being submitted after the deadline…

Avoiding Confrontation

What these scenarios have in common is that you chose not to confront someone directly. Your reasons could range from the noble to the cowardly:

You are so understanding. Perhaps you feel that only you know about the personal problems the offender is going through and that you have to stick out your neck and not call him on the carpet. At very least you need to give him time to work things out.

You are so strategic. Perhaps you need the person for his critical skills and are afraid that by curbing his freedom or insulting him, he will leave the company and harm your bottom line. If so, you would not be alone: A Forbes magazine article in July 2002 detailed how a number of prominent companies have allowed star employees to continue working despite fraud and rape allegations. In one case I am familiar with, management tolerance of a rogue rainmaker and his abusive behavior toward coworkers and subordinates led to deep wounds and hostility to management that lasted long after the rogue’s departure from the company.

You are so scared. Perhaps you just detest confrontation and are afraid (admit it) that she will lash out at you, accuse you of slander or “management by gossip”, and both refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and stay angry at you. Worse, she will start her own campaign to make you out as a bad person, and you are concerned that other employees will believe it.

Substituting Overreaction

On the other hand, you can’t simply do nothing or else your other employees, especially if harassed or penalized by the offender, will lose respect for you. So you retreat to the blanket rule strategy. You think this will stop the offender without anyone getting angry at you for singling them out. You aren’t alone – big companies and the government do this all the time: Absolutely no personal phone calls or emails! No frequent flyer miles on company travel because someone might go from Baltimore to Pittsburgh via Houston! Even if it won’t have any effect on the offender, at least you may be legally covered because you made a rule.

Unfortunately, your strategy is a disaster. As Albert Bernstein and Sydney Rozen point out in their book Sacred Bull, the conflict-avoiding manager does not put an end to conflict but merely sends it underground. When complaints are not acknowledged, the whining never stops. You become the brunt of most criticism instead of the offender.

Rules and Conflict

Hiding behind rules when confrontation is required is a perversion of the value of rules and bureaucracy. To explain: Years ago, sociologist Robert Merton explained that one of the great values of bureaucracy – having hierarchical positions in an organization in which the role defines one’s power – is that it depersonalizes power. Previously, one person made another person do something because he or she was richer, bigger, or related to the boss. This type of power can be a direct blow to the other person’s man- or womanhood. It says: I count, you don’t; I can do anything to you. By contrast, the advent of position-based power depersonalized the roles. Now, a superior could tell a subordinate to do things not because the superior was more worthwhile or stronger as an individual but because he was acting as the representative of the organization’s authority. In principle, this softens the blow and allows the subordinate to accede to authority without being personally diminished. Similarly, when an employee wants to bend the rules for whatever reason, even a seemingly good one, and breaking the rules will involve illegality or other non-negotiable problems, the supervisor doesn’t have to be personally hard-hearted; he or she simply has recourse to the rules. It’s truly “nothing personal”.

However, no amount of rules can spare a manager from ever having to resort to confrontation and censuring misbehavior – that is an essential part of the job. That is the point at which being a “nice guy” – or the female equivalent – has to give way to being a leader in accountability and the representative of the greater good of all employees. If the leader will not use his position power or ownership power to stand up for harassed employees or for standards that protect the company from harm, leadership will have been abdicated to niceness. If the leader will not apply accepted standards of behavior to star performers, then employees will rightly conclude that there are no real standards. If the standards are then applied to them, they will rightly conclude that it is personal, that they aren’t important enough to be given similar slack.

The Anti-Rule Rules

When you hear about employee misbehavior, consider these actions:

  1. Take the accusations seriously – put yourself in the shoes of those who are being harmed, whether personally or by the alleged cheating or incompetence of others. Take their lack of power into consideration when you are doing that.
  2. Treat accusations as possible truths – you cannot take all gossip as fact; the accused have their side of the story, and acting based on gossip will also erode employee respect for you. Conversely, simple denials by those who are accused by many others cannot be taken at face value either. Someone (you or a subordinate) has to do an objective inquiry.
  3. Respond to the misbehavior – if the abuse, cheating, or incompetence is not tolerable, you must let the offender know that it won’t be tolerated. You may need to suggest or insist on documentation, probation, mentoring, coaching, or counseling for the offender, but there must be accountability. Others (especially those harmed) need to know that certain behaviors will stop immediately. For less severe infractions, there still must be a time limit in which the offender needs to show improvement.
  4. Resist the global rule – deal with the specific problem employees and keep treating everyone else with the respect and trust they deserve – it’s part of what makes your company a good place to work.
  5. Monitor the situation – if the problem becomes endemic and the problem behavior is now embedded in the culture – then you might have to reevaluate and strengthen your policies and rules. is an organizational psychologist who does consulting in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, and performance management, as well as executive and work/life coaching. This article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.