The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post’s On Leadership site produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.
The goal is to “engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level.”
Most people know how to behave in the workplace, but there are always outliers who are aggressive or quirky, or who have never figured out the acceptable social norms.
Recently, a colleague shared a rather bizarre story of a federal employee who would burp in the face of a colleague or manager when given a task he didn’t want to perform. Even though the employee’s job performance was fully satisfactory, people complained about this behavior and saw it as mocking and a sign of deliberate disrespect.
Although this seems like a scene out of the television comedy “Parks and Recreation,” uncomfortable issues arise in offices across the country every day.
For example, a search on the phrase “body odor in the workplace” on Google yielded more than 85,000 articles and blog entries. From improper attire to offensive e-mails, inappropriate office behavior comes in many forms.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on how to deal with awkward and embarrassing situations. Even though it can be tricky, you need to confront unusual behavior quickly, because it may be hurting your team’s morale and ability to do work.
Here is some advice to help you navigate such situations:
l Communicate promptly, clearly and tactfully. Although you may be uncomfortable approaching an employee, it’s important to address inappropriate behavior as soon as it is recognized. Normally, you may wish to start with a private conversation and focus on the observed behavior, not speculate on the possible motivation. For example, you might say: “You may not be aware of it, but I’ve noticed that (objectively describe the behavior or condition and the impact it is having on the workplace). Be direct. This is not a time for subtlety.
l 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 Tourette’s syndrome could make some behaviors involuntary.
l Make it clear that the behavior needs to change and say why. One supervisor told me about an employee who chewed tobacco in the office and carried a cup around so he could spit the tobacco juice out, even during team meetings. The supervisor let the offending employee know that other workers complained and that it made some nauseated and less able to concentrate on their work. After some grumbling, the employee agreed to kick the habit, at least in the office.
l Be clear about possible negative consequences for poor behaviors. Behavior modification can be helped by making it crystal clear that being a good co-worker is required, not optional. Even if the offender is a decent performer, disciplinary action can and should be taken if an employee disrupts or impedes others in the work unit. Having this articulated in an employee’s official performance standards is a good idea.
l Let the employee know you are ready to help. Changing behaviors or habits may not be easy. Most federal agencies have employee assistance programs, and a counselor may be able to determine if professional assistance or a workplace accommodation is needed.
Federal managers, what types of inappropriate office behaviors have you experienced in the workplace? How did you go about resolving those issues? I would be interested in hearing your ideas about the best way to approach employees about these behaviors. Please share your stories and ideas. E-mail me at
And check online Wednesday, when I speak with U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro. You can receive a reminder by following us on Twitter: @RPublicService.