Disruptive Behaviors: Is Your Company Enabling A Hostile Work Environment?

By: Margaret Wood 4/18/2018

Encouraging employees to work as a team, improving productivity, employee morale and promoting the basic doctrines  of civility and respect all trickle down to the bottom line: increased customer satisfaction.

Unfortunately, when employees conduct themselves in disruptive or  inappropriate behaviors, your goals may be difficult to achieve.  These types of behavior not only result in significant negative consequences both to the organization and its employees, but exponentially increases an organization’s potential legal liability.

Identifying the potential risk for your organization if these behaviors are not corrected can be challenging. The organization needs to constructively manage the difficult and disruptive employee who exhibit these attitudes in the work place.


Problematic Behaviors

Team friction and performance stagnation tends to follow when there is no accountability for professional behavior within an organizations’ culture. A wide range of unchecked behaviors can create risks for other employees as well as the organization.

Here are some examples :

  • Gossiping: According to the Collins Dictionary, the definition of gossip is: informal conversation, often about other people’s private affairs
  • Insolent & Uncivil Behavior
    •  This includes making insulting and demeaning remarks
    • engaging in disrespectful or rude speech or behaviors
    • physical intimidation
      • use of hostile or angry tones
      • berating colleagues & staff in front of others
      • shouting
      • throwing things
      • slamming doors
      • cussing
      • bullying

Most often, these behaviors are directed at anyone the individual disagrees with or is agitated by

  • Bullying

Bullies can be very subtle and can be very convincing that they are the perfect employee.

Bullies use such tactics as:

    • social isolation
    • condescending tones
    • contemptuous communications
    • manipulation

Bullying is often directed at specific individuals.

  • Bullying is about having power over someone else
  • Bullying is often characterized by persistent abusiveness
    • intimidating behavior
    • unfair actions
      • assigning too much work
      • constantly changing deadlines
      • poor performance ratings

These types of actions cause the recipient to feel abused, threatened, humiliated and vulnerable. Often affecting direct reports, bullies will also target anyone who may seem weaker.

  • Exhibiting insubordination – the intentional refusal to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable orders
  • This can manifest in two ways:
    • as a single event worthy of discipline or termination
    • a series of lesser events that undermine a supervisor’s authority over time.

Repeated warnings to reduce harmful gossiping or hostile remarks in the workplace that go unheeded is an excellent example of insubordination.

Impact on the Organization

Disruptive behaviors have a a far-ranging impact on businesses:

  • Performance declines
  • Productivity declines
  • Employee commitment erodes
  • Company reputation suffers

All these will translate to the bottom line and turnover costs will skyrocket; your organization will experience an increase in sick leave, legal claims as well as disability claims.

Toxic behaviors spread like wildfire. Even though the problem starts with one person’s bad behavior, eventually, those who work around these disruptive employees begin to behave differently as well, believing the organization tolerates these poor behaviors.

In a 2016 survey conducted by Weber Shandwick, Civility in America VII: The State of Civility, 30% of managers indicated that they had fired or threatened to fire someone due to incivility and nearly 25% of employees said they had quit a job due to an uncivil workplace. Additionally, 87% of workers indicated that workplace incivility has an impact on work performance, including in the following ways:

  • 55% of respondents said their morale suffered.
  • 45% expressed a desire to quit.
  • 38% felt anger toward co-workers or the employer.
  • 36% noticed a reduction in the quality of their work.
  • 33% discouraged others from working at the company.
  • 32% experienced a negative effect on their personal time.
  • 26% felt less creative.
  • 23% called in sick.

Surprisingly, workplace bullying has become prevalent in today’s workplaces. Findings from a 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found the following:

  • 19% of U.S. workers are bullied, and another 19% witness it.
  • 61% of U.S. workers are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace.
  • 70% of perpetrators are men, and 60% of targets are women.
  • 61% of bullies are bosses, and the majority (63%) operate alone.
  • 40% of bullied targets are believed to experience adverse health effects.
  • To make the bullying stop, 65% of targets leave their jobs.

With over 60 percent of the offenders having a higher job status than the target, this is a problem that must be addressed from the top down.

Social media is becoming a large concern for employers; negative postings portraying the employer in an undesirable light may go viral, damaging the company’s reputation and brand. Acting on these negative reviews and harmful postings need to be acted on when discovered.

HR is Your Friend

HR professionals can provide guidance and training to managers with difficult employees; adopting the role of business partner, HR can assist managers uncover the underlying issue.

Recognizing that a problem exists is the first step. No one likes conflict; however, managers should not avoid dealing with interpersonal issues just because these problems are sometimes difficult and take time to resolve. HR professionals can assist managers strategize possible solutions. Part of an overall organization strategy should ensure that conflicts are resolved resolutely, so as to establish trust and prevent workplace violence.

Enabling Factors

Fear of retribution or intensified negative behaviors are the most common factors that prevent employees from reporting or complaining about the disruptive individual.

Managers can be reluctant to confront these difficult conversations with employees and are often unskilled at addressing these behaviors to arrive at a positive resolution.

Additionally, the loss of an otherwise “contributing” employee may be a factor in reluctance to address the issue. This is poor rationalization as lack of action only perpetuates the issue.The disruptive employee will then interpret the lack of action as acceptance or condoning, and the bad behavior may escalate. All employees are contributors, some more than others yet all deserve the right to a peaceful and professional work environment.

Employees will begin to comment that they do not understand the need for documented policies if they are not going to be enforced. This can have a huge impact on morale, creating other issues.

Managers have an ethical and sometimes legal obligation to investigate complaints or other evidence of bad behavior and to prevent its recurrence by taking prompt, appropriate remedial action.

By ignoring the problem, your company runs the risk of condoning disruptive behavior and your exposure to potential legal liability increases significantly.


People management is a balancing act and can be very challenging. Yet many employees are promoted into these roles without the proper training, leaving them unprepared in the skills needed to handle the disruptive behaviors effectively. Additionally, the so-called difficult employees may have never acquired the appropriate social skills to  work as a productive member of a team or to interact at a professional level.

Train, train, train

Proactive, ongoing training can lay the groundwork:

  • Employees will learn and understand their behavioral expectations
  • Managers will be better prepared to act when team members fall short of those expectation

Basic training in conflict resolution and  people management  is a good starting point

There are many options to consider in the training of staff. In-house or outsourced people management programs, some of which include 360-degree assessments, can help identify where the manager’s people-skills may need development. Help your managers feel more confident in dealing with disruptive employees by providing them support, and the tools they need to succeed.

More companies are now including civility training for all employees; some of the areas  covered include how to maintain composure in difficult situations, business etiquette, cultural sensitivity and diversity awareness components.

The Department of Labor offers prevention programs for employers, such as:  “Leading for Respect” and “Respect in the Workplace”.


If an employee feels they are not being heard, that is when they are most like to engage in disruptive behaviors. Good managers will start to pay close attention when unacceptable behaviors appear. Taking time to collect as much information as possible and to understand the issue fully will go a long way.

Solicit the problematic staffer’s point of view; often, you will learn something that is triggering this behavior, blocking progress and causing them stress–all of which can be addressed and resolved. Listening can be a HUGE factor in de-escalating negative behaviors before they become problematic.


When talking to staffers about unacceptable behaviors, avoid making any personal attacks. Also, avoid making statements such as: “You’re a troublemaker” or “You’ve got anger management issues”– such statements will put employees on the defensive. Productive conversations will become hindered.

Stay focused on the behaviors. Address the individual’s positive behaviors and give specific examples of both, i.e. “Your positive approach to___helped us get ___”, or  “You’ve raised your voice three times in meetings in the last two weeks in response to a co-worker’s question”. Ensure that the employee understands what is expected in the future.

Documenting & Disciplinary Actions

Enough can’t be said about documenting. Job performance expectations include behavioral expectations–some managers tend to forget this. They may talk to employees about their unacceptable behaviors, sometimes several times, yet never document the events.

So, when it comes time to fire an individual,  there’s no papertrail of what discussions took place and what expectations were discussed; this is something all Unemployment Offices look for when an employee files a claim for unemployment.

Do not ever assume that disruptive behaviors will self-correct. If the situation becomes untenable, having the documentation in hand will support an employer’s actions to discipline or termination. An employee displaying toxic behaviors is engaging in an actionable offense, even if all other job goals are being met.

Employees should be told the specific consequences of failure to improve their performance. If an employee will be discharged if no improvement is shown, the employee should be told precisely that. Avoid generalities at all costs. A fair notice would entail a conversation that is direct and respectful. Ultimately, the responsibility to adjust his or her behavior falls upon the employee.

Follow up 

After having the appropriate conversation with an employee, do not consider the matter closed and put away the file. Follow-up. Recognize improvements. However, employees should be held accountable for failures in not correcting the behavior.

Nothing will affect the morale of other employees faster than watching unacceptable performance go unaddressed or, worse, be addressed and then tolerated, which suggests that the manager is incapable of dealing with the situation. Working with an employee, though, and giving him or her a chance to improve can also be an effective morale booster.

Codes of Conduct

Most companies fully expect that employees and managers will conduct themselves in a professional manner, and treat each other with dignity and respect. In addition, most companies  have written policies that prohibit harassment and discrimination, including actions that may lead to an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

In order for the workforce to develop a clear understanding between acceptable and unacceptable behavior,  organizations need to communicate clear expectations and take appropriate actions.


The cost of workplace bullying and other disruptive employee behaviors can be measured in many ways. An organization can, for example, analyze the impact of these  behaviors based on:

  • Surveys
  • Turnover
  • Employee engagement
  • Loyalty & commitment
  • Job satisfaction
  • Productivity
  • Quality of work
  • Lost work hours

Legal Issues

Legal risks are associated with confronting disruptive employees about their behavior. Federal and state employment laws protect employees from discrimination based on age, race, gender, national origin, religion, disability, and, in some states, marital status and sexual orientation. In addition, whistle-blower or retaliation protections and collective bargaining agreements can create some additional areas for legal concern.

When employees who belong to one or more of these protected classes face discipline, they may feel they are being treated differently than those employees who are not members of the same class.

Keeping all disciplinary conversations focused on the employee’s actual performance problem is important. Basing decisions on performance helps prevent even the appearance of a violation of any laws. Even if an employee feels he or she is the victim of discrimination or harassment, concentrating on performance helps maintain the focus on the true employment issues at hand, keeps the employer compliant, and shows respect for employees and their rights in the workplace.



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