What Can I Do to Prevent a Repeat of Problem Behavior By a Colleague Toward Younger Staff?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: What should I do to ensure my staff
is treated appropriately by someone
who has behaved inappropriately in the past?  

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Question:  
I have a male colleague who has placed several junior staff (15-20+ years younger; mostly but not entirely female) in uncomfortable situations over the years: getting drunk to the point that they have to take him home to his wife since he can’t stand up straight (injuring themselves accidentally in the process), calling female colleagues while drunk and then lying to his wife about who he’s talking to, getting drunk in front of clients and having colleagues need to “clean up” after (including both helping him as he throws up as well as dealing with the clients), and so on.

I suspect the issues go beyond drinking problems, and that he likely has borderline personality disorder (he fits almost all of the descriptions, including suicidal tendencies) Nobody has ever reported the most egregious incidents to HR or our department head, because he is considered a well-meaning if awkward person, and nobody wants to be responsible for him losing his job (or worse doing something self-destructive).

It’s been years since the last incident, but now he will be working on some projects with junior staff who report to me. Since I am responsible for these people, suddenly I feel like I can’t pretend these things didn’t happen. Any time I see him talking to a female junior colleague, I am worried about whether she’ll be put in an uncomfortable situation at some point. I don’t want to report things that happened years ago, and (more importantly) the most egregious stories aren’t mine to tell. Plus, I don’t even know how to think about these kinds of situations – where it’s not harassment or against corporate policy, but it doesn’t seem right either. I don’t know if I’m ready for the consequences of saying anything, but I also feel like somehow I’m neglecting a moral obligation if I don’t.

Response: 
You are certainly correct that your leadership (moral) role as well as your managerial (organizational) role is to be both a guide and protector for your staff, about appropriateness with and from others in the organization–especially those who are senior to them or of higher organizational level. It is unfortunate that someone in a leadership role in your company didn’t intervene about your colleague’s behavior and performance years ago–it would have saved a lot of people from discomfort and perhaps fear and anxiety, may have helped the employee get help for himself (and his family), and would have kept you from dealing with this concern now.

Probably the worst mistake organizations make is to tolerate problem behavior or performance because, “That’s just the way Frank is.” Or, “That’s just the way Lisa acts.” Or, “Poor Frank, I think he has personal problems.” When I talk about intervening to correct problem behavior or performance, I often advise, “The earlier, the easier.” It is always easier to redirect behavior at the first indication of a problem than it is to correct chronic problem behavior. If correction is not done by then, it usually takes a crisis before action is finally taken. At that point, often the only thing that can be done is to try to mitigate damage to the organization. Harm to the people involved usually can’t be remedied.

It seems you have two decisions to make: Should you report your colleague’s past behavior? And, what should you do to ensure that your colleague’s behavior with your staff is always appropriate? Here are some things to consider:

1. What was the nature of the past egregious behavior? If  your colleague’s behavior while sober or under the influence of alcohol was criminal or potentially criminal (a sexual assault, harassment of any kind–sexual or not–that had an effect on an employee’s life, career or well-being, or if there was criminal behavior related to the assets of the business) and you think the crime was never reported, then you should come forward about it. If I was in your situation, I would talk to an attorney about liability concerns related to such reporting, in case the colleague is cleared of wrongdoing and alleges slander. Nevertheless, if the actions were criminal, I would report it. Probably the behavior didn’t reach that level or you or someone else would have been reported already.

If the behavior was in the category of an organizational violation rather than a criminal one, there is probably no point in reporting it now, since it is a year or more after it occurred. The purpose of reporting a policy violation at the time it happens is to alert the organization (management and HR) about a problem. They can then investigate it and either exonerate the employee or find him or her guilty of violating policies. If the violation is proven, they can use the organization’s disciplinary system, from counseling through progressive sanctions, with or without Employee Assistance programs, up to dismissal, to stop wrong behavior or performance and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This process can also protect other employees from the negative results of behavior that has already occurred and prevent it from being a problem for them in the future.

You say the last problem incident was years ago, so investigating a reported occurrence would be difficult. Most importantly, if the behavior isn’t happening now, sanctions wouldn’t have much purpose. Counseling might still be appropriate but not necessarily. It could be argued that the employee has changed and has essentially counseled and sanctioned himself into correct behavior. Perhaps he has sought counseling and other assistance on his own or was forced to make changes to save his marriage. It may be that the Department Head found out about the situation and warned your colleague of what could happen, so he corrected his behavior, but you weren’t aware of what happened. (I doubt that, but it’s a possibility.)

In addition, since you say most co-workers and subordinates have not reported the employee in the past because they felt sorry for him or didn’t want to cause him problems, it’s likely they wouldn’t want to say anything now. Also, there is the issue that higher level staff might feel that co-workers were partly to blame for not taking action early on to stop the behavior. Thus, fearing repercussions, co-workers will say they don’t remember or that they remember it differently than you do.

I think you are correct that you would see or feel some negative consequences for bringing this up in an official way right now–and not much benefit would come from it. However, you’re right to not ignore the warning bells caused by those memories, when you see your colleague talking to one of your staff members. There is an old supervisory adage about documentation, that is erroneous: “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.” Certainly, incidents should be documented as soon as possible, to have an accurate record of the details. But, memory of past problems, even those that were not documented at the time, are valid reasons to take preventive action. As you say, you will feel you have neglected a moral obligation if you do not do something to prevent harm to individuals, the team and the organization.

2. Has your colleague’s behavior been completely appropriate for a long time now or only appropriate when compared to former times? That distinction is worthwhile to consider, if for no other reason than that it will help reinforce that you are right to be concerned about his behavior with your staff members. In addition, if there have been recent situations that were on-the-verge of being a problem, you have something solid on which to base a blunt conversation with your colleague or a conversation with your own manager.

3. Is the current Department Head aware of past situations? If your manager, the Department Head, is even partially aware of your colleague’s past behavior, perhaps you can let him know, in a casual way, about your concerns and plans. In that way, you may gain some useful advice from someone who knows the system and the culture of the organization, as well as some support and reinforcement.

You could approach the conversation in several ways, according to your relationship with your manager and his or her knowledge about your colleague. For example,

“Everything is going fine on the project and I’m planning on meeting with each person to find out how they’re doing and if we’re on track. By the way, I saw Brian talking to Lisa in the hallway the other day and, although it looked fine, you know how he can be. I haven’t noticed any problems with him for quite a while, but I’m going to be very alert for indicators. I’m also going to talk to everyone on the project about keeping me informed if they have problems of any kind. Is there anything else you think I should do about that?”

Your manager may tell you he thinks there is no reason to be concerned, but at least you will have introduced the topic and let him know you are going to take some preventive action. If he agrees with you he may suggest additional actions, which will let you know you have his support.

If your Department Head has never been told specifically about your colleague’s past issues, you may still be able to introduce the subject in a general way. I would bet he has heard rumors and is not completely unaware of the situation. You could say something like:

“I’m going to talk to everyone on the team about keeping communications professionally appropriate at every level. I saw Brian talking to one of the women in the hallway the other day and I was reminded that in years past he has stepped over the line on occasion. Nothing that was reported, but not something I want to have happening again. So, I’ll talk to the staff about communications in general and I’ll stay alert to problems that might be developing. If you ever notice anything I don’t, let me know.”

You may be quizzed about what happened in the past, but you will have made it clear that nothing was done at the time and that your goal is to prevent problems with anyone, not just with your colleague.

4. Is there someone else in the company with whom you can talk about this situation? Since every company has a slightly different culture and different ways of dealing with problems, it is usually very helpful to talk things out with a peer or higher, who can be trusted to not treat your conversation like gossip and who will give you sound advice. If you know someone who is also aware of your colleague’s history and may have been in a situation like yours, consider talking to them about it. Perhaps they will have good news to report about how things worked out. Or, they may have good advice, based on how they prevented problems.

5. Put your emphasis on communicating with your own team. Although there is a temptation to talk directly to your colleague about this situation, I don’t think it would be effective, unless you have a specific reason to do so.  Your colleague may feel that he has worked hard to correct his behavior and your accusations (from his perspective) will seem unfair. But, if you have the slightest hint that he is being flirtatious or too personal or anything else of concern, you should talk to him directly, if your organizational situation makes it possible. (I realize how those things can be!)

The advice I mentioned before, about intervening early, applies here. If you see your colleague talking to a staff member and it appears his remarks are excessively personal or inappropriate (those things are often obvious from the overall behavior of both people) you can join in and break up the conversation. After the staff member leaves, you can either say something to the colleague or not, according to how well you know him and how comfortable you feel speaking up. At least you will have stopped the conversation and can then talk to the employee about it, if the appearance of the conversation indicates it would be a good idea. (You may want to join any conversation you see him having with a member of your staff. It wouldn’t be inappropriate in most companies for you to do so.)

6. How to talk to your staff: When you talk to your staff members, both individually and in a staff meeting, you can introduce the topic as if you always discuss it with groups working on a project.  That way it doesn’t sound as though you are warning them about anyone specifically and it will also be more comfortable for you. For example, you could say:

“This is the time on every project when I like to bring up the issue of working and communicating effectively with others in the company. This project is mentally fatiguing so there can be a temptation to let off steam or relax too much when we’re talking to people outside our immediate group. I want you to avoid that by watching your conversations, keeping appropriate relationships with other employees and letting me know if you think there is any kind of problem developing. Those could run the gamut from trying to get you to gripe about things to being too personal or anything else that could end up getting you or the team in hot water. I trust you to know what is appropriate and what isn’t and to let me know right away if something rings a warning bell in your mind. I’m here to listen and to help, so don’t hesitate to talk to me.”

You can even use past situations as the foundation for a vague but serious reference to potential problems. “We’ve had situations in the past where an employee didn’t know what to do when another employee with more tenure contacted her away from work. What I want you to do if anything like that happens, or if you feel you’re having problems with anyone, is to close the conversation quickly and tell me about it as soon as possible, so I can at least be aware of it and can stop it before it gets worse.”

Those are just examples that you would change and adapt to fit your style and the culture of the organization, but they show you that it doesn’t take a lengthy conversation to convey your expectations.

7. Be accessible and ready to listen. I’ve interviewed dozens of people who didn’t complain about various serious issues at work. When I’ve asked them why they didn’t say something to their supervisor or manager, most of the responses included something about feeling there was never a good time to say anything and the supervisor or manager never really seemed open to talking about anything other than immediate work. Then, as time went by and things improved somewhat, it seemed too late to bring it up. (Sounds familiar?)

As part of your active leadership, have frequent conversations with your staff about work. Before you’re done, open the conversation up to anything the employee wants to talk about.  You can lead the conversation somewhat: “Has everything been OK between you and other employees or with senior staff members? I want you to let me know if you’ve had any problem or any concerns.”

8. At the first indicator of a problem, take action immediately. If there is a provable situation of inappropriate conversation or behavior by your colleague, report it to your Department Head. Don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of it, act as soon as you become aware of a problem or what looks like a problem developing. The Department Head may not choose to take action, but you will have fulfilled your responsibility. Document what happened, when, to whom and why it concerns you. Be specific and be adamant about it being behavior that can’t happen again.

The tone of your letter indicates to me that you are a reasonable and effective problem-solver. I hope these thoughts will provide you with ideas you can add to your own plans of action. It may be you will decide to be much more direct than I have suggested, or you may have insights that guide you in another direction. I hope you will be guided by what is best for the company, for individuals in your team and for your ultimate goal of being an effective communicator and an effective leader.

If you have the time and want to do so, let us know what you decided to do and what were the results. Best wishes!

Tina Rowe
Ask The Workplace Doctors