Best Practices

An Eye on Misconduct

By Jaclyn M. Jensen
Assistant Professor of Management

Photography: Abby Greenawalt
Published: Fall 2011

From just one bad seed, wildly destructive corporate corruption can grow. Since all businesses, great or small, are comprised of individuals, it may be advantageous to take a micro, rather than macro, view when exploring strategies to reduce misconduct in the workplace.

I have researched negative behavior in organizations at the individual level. There are often direct parallels between the potential for corporate criminality and a company's hiring practices, employee policies and working environment. After all, even the CEO is usually hired in at a lower position before working his or her way to the top.

Certain characteristics and behaviors have been linked to the likelihood that an employee will be nasty with coworkers. Individuals may exhibit a dominating or aggressive style. They may be confrontational, disagreeable or difficult. But rudeness, aggressiveness and even harassment do not fall in the same domain as corruption.

Still, these behaviors can point to the possibility of more serious trouble in the future.

Presumably, a company's human resources department could play an invaluable role as the first defense in screening out potentially noxious personalities. There's some HR responsibility in making sure a company employs the best screening tools and practices. But immediate managers and supervisors have a substantial responsibility to pay attention to the interactions among their employees. A manager is likely to have more influence over somebody who is being a bully or a jerk than is someone in HR who does not have the same day-to-day exposure to the employee.

More importantly, of course, are the questions that supervisors and managers ask during hiring interviews and the way those inquiries are framed. A manager can look at traits like integrity and honesty and gain insight by asking potential employees about past behavior. A sample question might be:

Think about a situation where you were under time pressure to complete a business project. Tell me how you dealt with that pressure. What types of things did you do to execute your responsibilities in a way that demonstrated honesty and integrity?

Managers can ask job candidates about their past employment history in a way that helps them assess whether the candidates work in a way that is ethical. For employees already within the organization, observance and implementation of company policies—particularly those addressing discrimination and harassment—can go a long way toward preventing a mindset that leads to high-level misdeeds.

If a policy requires that coworkers be treated with respect and courtesy, but a manager tolerates rudeness in the workplace, it's as though the policy doesn't exist. In such a case, action should be taken. You might think of these actions as "organizational interventions," and they need to be implemented consistently. They are predicated on having policies in place that direct employees toward the organization's behavioral standards.

At the same time, if you're going to promote someone with a history of being a bully, you have to step back and ask, "Are we promoting people for the right reasons?" I love to use this example in my classes:

Say you have a team manager who's a real jerk but his team is consistently able to meet its quarterly goals. Should he be promoted?

At some point, you would hope organizations would consider not just whether quarterly goals are met but also how they are achieving those goals. Many of the organizations with which I've interacted are starting to take that question into consideration. It's no longer just "Have you achieved your objectives?" but also "Have you done so in a way that's consistent with our values, with treating people properly?" This part of the evaluation is becoming more critical.

Legislation can help institutionalize these values. Sexual harassment is illegal, but now several states are also considering legislation that would outlaw bullying in the workplace. There is research that shows even general rudeness or incivility in organizations has substantial financial consequences, so the implications for policy are emerging at an opportune time.