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Disruptive People – Taking Decisive Action

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Taking decisive action in the workplace can be difficult for an employer.   It is tempting to bury our heads in the sand and hope that the problem will resolve itself.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen disruptive people remain in a team, where they are causing real problems, but their managers are reluctant to take any decisive action to resolve the situation.

As humans we have a herd mentality and we like to conform and fit in with others around us.  It is human nature to keep our heads below the parapet and avoid any conflict.  In the workplace, this often means that people can behave badly and seemingly get away with it.  Managers don’t want to rock the boat, especially if the person is doing good work and is in a role where it is difficult to recruit a replacement. 

Taking decisive action

Sometimes there is a need to make an unpleasant management decision and deal with a problem.  In some cases the required action can be costly – if a star performer leaves or is dismissed as a result of poor behaviour, it can be difficult or costly to replace them and the work may not get done in the meantime.   Sometimes it is easier and seemingly more financially beneficial to take the path of least resistance and the minimum action.  It may even impact on other, innocent, people – colleagues or clients, or both.

A disruptive employee might apologise or claim something was just banter or a joke which misfired.  In such a case, it is easy to leave well alone and let the situation carry on.  And if it is the first incident and the contrition is genuine, that may be the correct action.

But if it is repeated behaviour, or a pattern of disruption occurs, or the conduct is really bad, then swift and decisive action can be a sensible and appropriate response.  It will not be popular in all quarters, and you need to carefully weigh up the outcome and the consequences. And you must always ensure that any action is appropriate and proportionate to the problem caused.  But decisive action shows strength and an awareness of the bigger picture.

What action can employers take?

Too often, disruptive people get away with bad behaviour because of their usefulness to their employer.

I once had to deal with a complaint that a sales manager was bullying another staff member.  The company were reluctant to take disciplinary action as he was “our best salesman”. There was a fear that he would leave if he was subject to disciplinary action.  But he brought in a good deal of business – and he would be difficult to replace. The manager, of course, revelled in his seeming invincibility and his behaviour became gradually worse.

The bullied staff member left eventually, as did other colleagues with similar complaints.   I imagine the cost of replacing those staff was large.  The company also had to continually deal with complaints about the manager. 

In the end, the difficult individual left of his own accord, to suit his own timing; showing no loyalty to the company. If they had taken some disciplinary action at an earlier stage, they would have had more control over the situation.

This is not a criticism of the employer. They were placed in a very difficult situation and made the best decision they could, for important business reasons.  The point I am making is that sometimes the difficult path of taking decisive action is the better path.

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Jill Aburrow - HR Consultant

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