Define expected workplace behaviors

Feb. 18. By Cheryl Kane. We live in a nation of free speech and have cultural pride in individuality. But what happens when employees’ clothes, office decor, actions, or conversations step over a potentially invisible but evident line?

What is inappropriate?

As managers and sales professionals there are interpersonal situations that temporarily test us; we pause, reflect, sort out the issues’ components, and find a solution. But then there are times that completely confound us. Often the difference in intensity and complexity between the two comes from conflicts of vision and or values—deeply held beliefs we use to guide us in achieving our goals and directing our daily actions.

So, what to do when you find yourself managing employees who bring the personal vision or values they follow and express freely outside the workplace, into the workplace in ways that distract others from their work, disrupt established best-practice policies, or detract from a healthy organizational culture?

Set expectations

Set clear expectations for behavior in the workplace and communicate them well.

An example of this is when I’ve been invited to train employees. The manager tells me the specific skill they are trying to build in employees, and as an aside they casually add, “Oh, yeah, could you do a short session on professional dress/speech/actions in the workplace?”

Of course I’m happy to do this, but when I ask them for their existing employee policy on what they expect professionalism to be in their workplace they don’t have one. They generally say something like, “Well they need to follow common sense!”

In the case of professional dress, I often start the discussion by reminding everyone, “If what you have on,  don’t have on, or almost have on, distracts others from the business purpose you or others are supposed to be focused on, it is likely not appropriate.”  A similar statement could be used to frame many other topics related to desirable or appropriate behavior in the workplace.

Plan for conflict

This kind of conflict can become complicated and a time drain—unless you have planned for it, or you have resources you can reach out to for assistance.

Clear expectations of what you want the workplace culture to be, and what you do not want it to hold, is essential.  A good place to start could include a well-vetted employee policy manual developed with a human resource professional and an employment law attorney. This can help you create focused workplace behaviors that are legally sound. Your HR professional can find several options for you.

Your specific mission statement can be woven into the policies to customize them to your organization. And this allows you to rely on the policies-tied-to-the-mission when introducing your organizational culture to potential candidates, orienting new employees, framing ongoing training sessions, and daily problem solving.

This repeated reliance on concrete standard practices can help everyone stay focused on mission-specific behaviors and conduct. Consistent modeling of those appropriate behaviors and actions by senior employees and managers, becomes a perpetual example against which an anomaly is easily and immediately identifiable as undesirable.

5 steps to take

So, if you are trying to grapple with a complex issue relating to workplace behaviors, consider starting simply:

• Identify the relevance of the desired behavior to the job and tasks at hand, to the customer, and to the company.

• Draw a direct relationship from what you desire as it supports the values and purpose of the organization.

• Be clear about the legal aspect of the behaviors.

• Be specific about your defined policy and your expectations for action if it is not followed.

• Keep the policies up to date. Cycle through them throughout the year in meetings, training, or communications to remind everyone of them.

Cheryl Kane

Cheryl Kane, MBA, PHR, GPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a strategic business consultant, sales trainer, & professional speaker specializing in problem solving and service quality. Cheryl welcomes your communication at email: [email protected]


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