Working with someone who doesn’t understand social norms?


Most people know how to behave in the workplace, but there are always some outliers that are aggressive, eccentric, or never understand acceptable social norms.

Recently, a coworker shared a rather bizarre story of a federal employee burping in the face of a coworker or manager when given a job he didn’t want to do. Even though the employee’s job performance was fully satisfactory, people complained about this behavior and viewed it as mockery and a sign of willful disrespect.

Although it looks like a scene from the TV comedy Parks and recreation, uncomfortable problems arise every day in offices across the country. For example, a search for the phrase “body odor in the workplace” on Google returned over 85,000 articles and blog entries! From inappropriate office attire to offensive emails, inappropriate office behavior can take many forms.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for how to handle delicate and embarrassing situations. While it can be tricky, you need to deal with unusual behavior quickly as it can take a toll on your team’s morale and their ability to do their jobs.

Here are some tips to help you navigate these difficult work situations:

· Communicate quickly, clearly, and tactfully. While you may be uncomfortable approaching your employee, it’s important to deal with inappropriate behavior as soon as it’s recognized. Normally, you can start with a private conversation and focus on the observed behavior, without speculating on the possible motivation. For example, you could say, “You may not be aware of it, but I have noticed it (objectively describe the behavior or condition and the impact it has in the workplace). Be direct. Now is not the 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 Gilles de la Tourette syndrome could cause certain behaviors to be involuntary.

· Make it clear that the behavior needs to change and why. A supervisor told me about an employee who chewed tobacco in the office and carried a cup so he could spit out the tobacco juice, even during team meetings. The supervisor informed the offending employee that other workers complained and this made some nauseous and less able to concentrate on their work. After a few grunts, the employee agreed to get rid of the habit, at least in the office.

· Be clear about the possible negative consequences of bad behavior. Behavior modification can be facilitated by making it clear that being a good colleague is required, not optional. Even if the offender is a decent performer, disciplinary action can and should be taken if an employee disturbs or hinders others in the work unit. Having this articulated in an employee’s official performance standards is a good idea.

· Let the employee know that 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 help or workplace accommodation is needed.

Federal managers, what types of inappropriate office behavior have you encountered in the workplace? How did you go about resolving these issues? I would be interested to hear your ideas on how best to approach employees about these behaviors. Please share your stories and post your ideas below, or email me at [email protected]

And come back on Wednesday, when I speak with the Comptroller General of the United States, Gene Dodaro. You may also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

Also by The Federal Coach:

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Adm. Thad Allen on lessons from Gulf disasters

Inspiring a battered federal workforce


About Marjorie C. Hudson

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