Workplace Behavior: Defining What Is Appropriate

January 24th, 2011 - Erin Johnston

Workplace BullyingOne of the issues consistently plaguing employer’s efforts to curb workplace conflict is a lack of a uniform understanding of what is appropriate versus inappropriate behavior among staff.

It seems reasonable to demand that that employees and managers treat one another appropriately. However, if individual employees and managers do not recognize the same definitions of appropriate versus inappropriate behavior, employers may find themselves continually playing (a potentially embarrassing) game of catch-up.

Inappropriate Behavior – Three Public Examples

Too often employers are left scrambling to clarify and respond to employees behavior that falls outside workplace policies in a very public way. Below are three such incidents. At issue for the employers in these instances is not just the incident – but also the public debate over their responses.

  • One of the most recent incidents to make the news was the case of Navy Captain Owen Honors. Capt Honors was abruptly relieved of command of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise two weeks before scheduled deployment once videos he made years earlier came to light. As the issue unfolded in the press much of the public commentary centered on whether the videos were, in fact, inappropriate.
  • Another incident that played out in public, although without quite the media coverage, was a televised incident on CBS’s reality program Undercover Boss in February of 2010. In the episode a male manager at the restaurant Hooter’s required the all-female servers to compete as to who would get to go home early. In the competition the manager insisted that the “servers clasp their hands behind their backs and gobble up a serving of cooked beans face-first.” The winner would get to leave early. Although, the manager was later reprimanded by the “undercover” CEO for the clearly inappropriate behavior, this seems to be another case of a manager not recognizing his behavior as inappropriate until he was reprimanded. The manager was not fired, but has since left the company.
  • Recently Ron Franklin announced that he is suing ESPN for wrongful termination. ESPN dismissed Franklin due to inappropriate remarks made to sidelines reporter Jeannine Edwards during a pregame interaction with colleagues: “Listen to me, sweet baby, let me tell you something.” When she protested as to his tone he responded by calling her another clearly derogatory term. Although Franklin had made a previous slip in 2005 during a Notre Dame-Purdue game to sideline reporter Holly Rowe: “Holly, it’s not giving up, it’s 49-21, sweetheart.” It is unclear as to whether ESPN reprimanded him in 2005, or if there were other less public incidents that Franklin’s employer addressed. It does seem likely that Franklin was unaware that his employer saw his behavior as inappropriate – until he was fired.

These are just three incidents. They played out publicly and occurred in workplace settings that have a unique relationship with women. They also share a common theme where, understandably or not, the employer appears not have recognized that his behavior was inappropriate until after the fact.

Addressing Inappropriate Workplace Behavior

Regardless of the industry, at some point every employer will have to respond to a specific workplace incident of inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, similar to the cases above, they will not always be aware of the issue until significant and possible irreparable damage has been done to the organizational reputation.

Employers should adopt a proactive conflict resolution program that includes confidential workplace conflict mediation as well as employee training that focuses on building conflict resolution and communication skills. Such a program ensures that all employees have the opportunity to confidentially and proactively address inappropriate behaviors before they become a problem.

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