[Podcast] Dealing with Challenging Behaviours in the Workplace

Posted in : HR Updates on 16 January 2020
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

Rolanda: Welcome to the HR Bitesize podcast series in conversation with Clarendon Executive. Today, we are joined by Hugh McPoland and Mairéad Regan, associate consultants at Clarendon Executive to discuss dealing with challenging behaviours in the workplace.

Working with Difficult People

I think it's probably fair to say that we've all worked with or managed people who we might class as being difficult or challenging, but what makes those people difficult to work with?

Hugh: That's a really good question. When you started your introduction, I was thinking, "How do we explain the role of HR in managing difficult people?" I think that in previous podcasts we've talked about the future HR director. If you want to become HR director, you need to think strategically, but I think it was Mairéad who reminded us that you can think strategically, but at the end of the day, you have to do some of the operational stuff.

This is the area where HR managers at the highest level get dragged into because people misbehave. What makes them misbehave is probably . . . gosh, let me be careful how I say this. It's an overstated and overestimation of their own ability, usually, where they think they know everything about everything and that everybody else is wrong.

On occasion, I find people being difficult because they think they're doing the right thing, and that probably drags you more into a whistle-blower type of environment where people are difficult and keep reinforcing to the managers, "That's not right. That's not right." And organisations go, "You're a nuisance. You're being difficult."

I think there are two different sets of circumstances there, but difficult people, from my experience, they've usually become very disengaged with the organisation, feel they know better than anybody else, and at times just take a personal dislike to someone and want to prove that they're smarter than the average bear.

Mairéad: I think what is the challenge for HR is that when it's a very clear breach of a policy or procedure or there's fraud or there's unsatisfactory work performance, that's a much easier thing to handle. You'll have your set procedure and policy. You'll follow that. You'll do your informal route, and then you'll go the formal route.

But when it comes to challenging behaviour, it's a little bit more difficult, and the conversations that you need to have around that require a skillset where you are able to be very honest and direct but in such a way that you're not going to cross any lines and you do things professionally.

I think it depends on where that individual is in the organisation as well, because if that person is technically very skilled and makes a huge contribution to the organisation but their behaviour is challenging and causing problems, if HR or if management don't deal with that individual, the impact for the organisation is there will be an impact on morale. People won't want to work there. The reputation.

I'm aware of an organisation. I was speaking to a recruitment agency about it who said, "We can't get anyone to work there because we've heard that there's an individual in there who manages the team who's incredibly difficult." Even though that person has a team in place and they're working, although their turnover rate is very high, even before they go for interview, individuals are deselecting to go there because that person has a reputation for being very challenging and very difficult to work with. If the organisation don't tackle that, they are really damaging the number of the individuals and the quality of the candidates who come to them and how long they stay with them.

It's not just about dealing with that individual. It's about looking at what impact that is having on the rest of the organisation. It also says something about HR. If HR don't tackle it, that is damage to the reputation of HR. I think staff look at HR and say, "Well, let's see. Just because that person is senior, is she or he going to get away with that, or are they going to deal with it?"

I think it does huge credit to the HR department even though it's incredibly difficult and it may well be somebody who's a peer of the person dealing with it in HR. If they don't, the damage of not dealing with it is much more serious than just letting things . . . either deal with it and sort it out, and there are certain ways that can be dealt with, and we'll probably discuss those, but I think if you don't deal with it, the impact is very serious for the organisation.

Managing Challenging Behaviours

Hugh: I think dealing with this is probably one of the most difficult things to deal with. I can think of one example. I'll use the example without putting names, but there was one manager who was quite difficult. One of the things that we got to hear about was that he told one of his deputies that his deputy will do exactly what he him them, and if he tells him to hang up picture frames, that's what he'll do. We went, "Not quite," but we had the conversation with the individual concerned, and that sort of behaviour stopped for a while. We told the individual who raised it with us, "We've had the conversation," but to the rest of the workforce, nothing happened because of the confidentiality requirements around it. We couldn't go . . .

Rolanda: But did the behaviour change?

Hugh: For a wee while, yeah.

Rolanda: And when it slipped back, what did the organisation do?

Hugh: We then had another conversation. Again, it goes back to, "Where is this difficult behaviour?" If it's at the very top of the organisation, you're absolutely right. If HR doesn't deal with it and there seems to be a consistent change in attitude, it's really difficult for HR to come back from that, and I think that's a real problem. If it's down in the middle of the organisation, people will see people go quickly.

For me, I think there's a point in time we almost need to not do all the best practices. If people have difficulty, they should go into mediation process and agree on a contract about how they behave with each other. I can think of one individual who had four different contracts they had going at one time but were still misbehaving because of somebody else who hadn't had that process.

Sometimes I think there needs to be . . . every HR person listening to this will go, "They can't mean that," but you just need to sack someone and say, "We're not putting up with this anymore. You're gone," and make it public that that's the reason they've gone. Otherwise, we're really bad at saying, "Well, they've left to pursue other interests." It's a bit like cabinet ministers getting sacked and saying, "I want to spend more time with my family."

Mairéad: As long as that individual has been given a fair opportunity to address it.

Hugh: Yeah, absolutely.

Mairéad: Is that the end? I've had experiences with senior managers where, literally, you have the conversation, "Are you aware that," and you give them the facts of the case, "Are you aware of that and that his is how the individual felt about it?" and they're genuinely shocked. You would expect that's one of the very basic building blocks of a disciplinary process or any kind of harassment or whatever is to make the individual aware. That applies equally to senior managers.

Hugh: Absolutely.

Mairéad: I've had experience where somebody is genuinely shocked about it, but it was almost a personality trait, and they did try. They did try to address it, but they kept reverting back to it. For that individual who genuinely wants to improve, you have to look at what the options are. How can you support that individual? There is, as you say, the public presence of that. How does that look? That person might not want to go off on a £5,000 course to Roffey Park or Irish Management Institute or whatever to sit and do interpersonal relationships in organisations. An organisation may organise coaching for them, one-to-one coaching or support.

If the organisation believes that this is a good person who has useful skills and could be of benefit to the organisation, they deserve an opportunity to try to address it, and I think that an organisation will support them to do that. But given the support, having been made aware of it, absolutely. If the problem continues, there has to be a line in the sand. It wouldn't be tolerated at other levels of the business, so why should it be tolerated? And it definitely sends out a signal.

Hugh: Absolutely, and I think I have a common experience with you. Most people who in my time in HR, we've heard about their behaviour, when we bring it to their attention, they are horrified that someone could think that they're trying to behave in that way.

I keep telling people that once you've launched an investigation into behaviour, be it bullying or whatever, it gets to everyone's soul, and people are never the same afterwards, not unless you are a true psychopath. People are all damaged by that process, and I think it does have to be managed.

Process is your friend in this. Sometimes you have to sack someone and make it known you sacked them because of their behaviour, but you do have to follow process. Process is everyone's friend in this, but the process inevitably damages people. I don't think I've seen anyone who's been subject to allegations of bullying or harassment or bad behaviour go through an investigation or go through the process and actually come out the same person.

Usually, managers, it's part of their personality to be quite driven. When we get the first complaint and the first investigation, they just take a step back and are less driven, and that's an implication for the organisation as well. It may be a good implication, but it is really quite difficult dealing with any allegations of really bad behaviour.

Mairéad: I think there are some challenging behaviours that people have experienced like a manager who's a micromanager or a perfectionist, and those types of behaviours managers can learn to change. It's their default to be that way, but when they see that it's causing issues for others . . .

We discussed in a previous podcast about a manager sending out emails on a Sunday night to get it out of their head and pass it on to somebody else and the problems that it was causing. That perhaps is the perfectionist who wants to get the work out of the way and make sure it's going to be done on Monday morning, but it was causing problems. As soon as that manager was made aware of that, that stopped, and then we talked about using the delay email so it doesn't go out until Monday or whatever.

But if it's a more fundamental arrogance or a more fundamental challenging behaviour, then that's where it's really difficult where the individual may not be able to change, and that's where the HR skills and the honest conversations come into play.

Having Difficult Conversations about Challenging Behaviours

Rolanda: I suppose we were talking about difficult conversations on a previous podcast, and there's certainly not going to be a more difficult conversation than talking to somebody about their behaviour. But I think that's where success can be made because it is important to understand that it's the behaviour that's the issue, and I think that the difficulty sometimes is in articulating that to the person. The preparation for that meeting is identifying clearly what behaviour, how is that manifested, and how does that impact on others?

That's really the most important thing to do because people will naturally become defensive if somebody says to them, "You're very arrogant," for example. Then they'll say, "Well, you're challenging me," and then they'll retreat a bit and perhaps take a defensive position.

Whereas if it is very behavioural focused, that conversation, as you quite rightly said, Mairéad, those are behaviours that can be changed. It's really about taking the person outside themselves to realise that this is just a behaviour. It's not a fundamental part of them, and it is something that can be changed to give them the opportunity to improve so that they don't have to . . .

Hugh: I think 95% of all cases are like that where you can have that conversation, but there's still that 5%. If an HR manager runs into one of those 5%, it is a nightmare. It is truly a nightmare. I've had them where you've had the plan for the crucial conversations with this particular branded methodology, and that's fine as long as everyone plays by those rules.

But you will inevitably get someone who comes along and says, "No. It's a lie. Not me. Talk to somebody else. In fact, it's a conspiracy against me, and you need to sort that out. How could you possibly think I could be this sort of person? You know me. I don't do that." They're completely defensive.

I think that's the hardest part because most people are genuinely decent people who do not want to cause anyone else aggravation, and if they do, they go, "I didn't mean this. I'm sorry. I won't do that again," and you get to your normal sense of behaviour. But there are hardcore people who have no insight and are almost psychopathic.

Corinna: They're in denial?

Hugh: It's not even in denial.

Corinna: They don't accept?

Hugh: They have a sense that attack is the best form of defence, and then it just explodes. I've had too many of them and I've unfortunately probably been scarred by them, but it is really, really hard. Ultimately, Mairéad is absolutely right. Process is everyone's friend in this. Follow your process really, really closely. Ultimately, someone somewhere needs to be told, "It's a different career for you," and that could be the ultimate. But in managing that, I think, Mairéad, it's about having those critical conversations. It's about having the skillset.

Particularly, the very hard cases always end up in HR. There are lots of really good managers who keep a handle on this and keep it really well-settled. It's about having those really honest conversations, not a brutal honesty but a mellow honesty about trying to point it out to people. My experience has been 95% of people accept that sort of feedback. They're usually horrified that anyone could think that they are behaving in a way that's been described to them, but there are those hardcore people who are just odd.

Mairéad: And there is something as well, as you said, talking about looking at objective behaviours. It's not a subjective judgment. It's an objective behaviour or proof of what that behaviour is, almost delivering that message and knowing in advance that the individual is going to be defensive or upset or shocked or angry, walking away, and giving them a bit of time to get their head around it and maybe not trying to tackle it all in one go.

Say, "We've an issue here. We wanted to make you aware of it. We're going to look at ways to support you." But deliver the message, give them a little bit of recovery time, and then meet with them again. I think if you try to go straight away into remedial mode or, "This is what we're going to do," they're not going to hear any of it. They're not going to accept any of it.

I also think if it is a senior manager, there is an expectation on them that they will respond in a mature way. The instinct will be to not be vindictive but to be angry about it, but in that position, there's an expectation that you'll give some sort of mature response. The individual needs time to process it all and see, "Is there an element of truth here?" They may not come back and say, "I get it," but they might say, "Well, if there is a concern here, what can we do about it?" They want to stay in the organisation so that there is an issue.

Again, it links into the importance of other HR processes because if managers at some point are going through where they're seeking feedback from their team members, it might be something as simple as during the review conversations, "How can I support you better? What do you need me to be doing more of or less of?"

The micromanaging conversation or the perfectionist conversation or the arrogance conversation might have come out in that process as opposed to waiting until it blows up to become a big issue. Again, organisations should try to ensure that there is the performance management conversation happening to try to prevent these from becoming bigger issues.

Stop, Start and Continue

Hugh: I always liked the Stephen Covey notion of three things – stop, start, and continue. Every couple of years, I would've asked my staff that. "What are the three things you want me to stop doing?" And they were brutally frank.

Mairéad: But that's really good because then you don't end up in a very serious situation. If you were hearing that from one person, if you're hearing it from two or three, I bet you took it on board.

Hugh: Oh, yeah. I have a little story. I tell this story. It's actually brilliant because the first time I asked, they said, "When we go into your office, you sometimes continue to answer your emails. We want you to stop doing that and actually engage with us 100%. We know sometimes you're busy, but if you're busy, tell us to come back or have a sign which says, 'Don't interrupt.'"

We agreed to the notion that if I really didn't want to be disturbed, because my door was usually open, I would close the door. That lasted three weeks. "I know the door's closed, but I need to talk to you." Fine. That's okay. That continued, but I really didn't get too upset by that.

Then, after a while, there came a point where they raised it again. I said, "I've closed the door, and you lot keep coming in." They said, "Well, close the door and put a sign up. 'Do not disturb.'" The do not disturb sign went up, and still, after about two weeks, it was, "I know the door's closed. I know it says, 'Do not disturb.' But can you talk to me?"

We had that conversation. There was one real main offender. The actual solution then was the door was closed. It was, "Do not disturb, and that includes you," the person's name.

I think it helps the conversation, but equally I was able to say to people, "Sometimes you just walk in on me and I'm actually in the middle of something that needs thought process," and that's why we came and agreed close the door. I don't particularly like the door closed, but that's that conversation.

Hopefully, there is that maturity around it, but it's the sort of thing I would always encourage people to do. "What are the three things you want me to stop, start, and continue doing?" I find it very helpful as a manager because it did get me that connection by directing me about my behaviours sometimes, which were not all they should be.

Getting Recruiting Right

Mairéad: And we're talking about behaviour actually in the workplace. I suppose the other thing that we should mention is that, in terms of the recruitment process, are you getting the right people to start with?

As well as the standard interview process, organisations should look at what other tools are available to try to ascertain what the personality type is or how people handle challenge or how they handle disappointment, etc., through psychometric tests or through taking up references or whatever.

That won't make the recruitment decision. It just informs the panel of areas that they could explore, and you may well make a better choice in terms of the recruitment decision. A good interviewee will convince a panel, and you may end up with the same problem, but there might be an opportunity to deselect at that early stage.

Hugh: I think so much of this, when we talk about one thing, it links into something else. For me, if you want a really good workforce, get your recruitment right. Get it spot on. And there is that process.

I know for a lot of posts you don't invest a lot of time. Certainly, when you go into executive where one individual can make or break an organisation, you've got to invest that and use some of the psychometrics. I'm not a great fan of pressure interviews, but sometimes you do need to have that process of saying, "Okay. I've gone and put you under pressure. How are you going to react?"

I think there is something about managing difficult people. One, don't let them into your organisation if at all possible and, two, honestly, at the earliest opportunity, get people to have some sort of insight as to what their impact on others is. Ultimately, if they refuse to change, it is the process. Take them out no matter what level they are, but follow the process.

Rolanda: Okay. Thank you both. Thank you for listening to the HR Bitesize podcast series in conversation with Clarendon Executive. Further podcasts in this series are available at legal-island.com within the Employment Law Hub. Thank you.


This article is correct at 16/01/2020

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Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

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