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Federal Coach: Work with someone who doesn't understand social norms

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Most people know how to behave in the workplace, but there are always outliers who are aggressive, quirky or who have never figured out the acceptable social norms.

Recently, a colleague shared a rather bizarre story of a federal employee who would burp in the face of a colleague or manager when given a task he didn’t want to perform. Even though the employee’s job performance was fully satisfactory, people complained about this behavior, and saw it as mocking and a sign of deliberate disrespect.

Although this seems like a scene out of the television comedy show Parks and Recreation, uncomfortable issues arise in offices across the country every day. For example, a search on the phrase “body odor in the workplace” on Google yielded over 85,000 articles and blog entries! From improper office attire to offensive emails, inappropriate office behavior can come in many different forms.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on how to deal with awkward and embarrassing situations. Even though it can be tricky, you need to confront unusual behavior quickly since it may be hurting your team’s morale and ability to do their work.

Here is some advice to help you navigate these awkward workplace situations:

  • Communicate promptly, clearly and tactfully. Although you may be uncomfortable approaching your employee, it’s important to address the inappropriate behavior as soon as it is recognized. Normally, you may wish to start with a private conversation and focus on the observed behavior, not speculate on the possible motivation. For example, you might say: “You may not be aware of it, but I’ve noticed that (objectively describe the behavior or condition and the impact it is having on the workplace). Be direct. This is not a time for subtly.
  • Give employees a chance to tell their side of the story. There could be a medical condition involved or other extenuating circumstances. For example, a gastrointestinal disorder or Tourette’s syndrome could make some behaviors involuntary.
  • Make it clear that the behavior needs to change and why. One supervisor told me about an employee who chewed tobacco in the office and carried a cup around so he could spit the tobacco juice out, even during team meetings. The supervisor let the offending employee know that other workers complained and that it actually made some nauseated and less able to concentrate on their work. After some grumbling, the employee agreed to kick the habit, at least in the office.
  • Be clear regarding possible negative consequences for poor behaviors. Behavior modification can be helped by making it crystal clear that that being a good co-worker is required, not optional. Even if the offender is a decent performer, disciplinary action can and should be taken if an employee disrupts or impedes others in the work unit. Having this articulated in an employee’s official performance standards is a good idea.
  • Let the employee know you are ready to help. Changing behaviors or habits may not be easy. Most federal agencies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and a counselor may be able to determine if professional assistance or a workplace accommodation is needed.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Apr 25, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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