Will ‘good behaviour by decree’ work in Canadian workplaces?

Is an employee’s habit of chewing gum while talking with clients becoming a gnawing irritant? Do you find loud chatter from two cubicles down the corridor a constant distraction? Or are a co-worker’s tendencies to share strong religious and political beliefs creating tension in the office?

Companies can avoid many such aggravating situations by creating a set of behavioural rules for employees, according to Quint Studer, founder of Studer Group an organization consulting firm based in Pensacola, Florida and author of several leadership books.

“If you don’t spell out which behaviours are acceptable and which are not, you can’t hold people accountable for them.”

Executives, he said, shouldn’t assume people will feel their rights infringed upon when management attempts to establish “good behaviour by decree.”

“Most of the employees are as irritated by the offenders as you and your customers are,” said Studer who wrote Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviours that Will Take Your Company to the Top.

While exhibiting annoying behaviour does not necessarily mean being a bad employee, these bad habits can cause friction among co-workers and alienate clients, Studer warned.

Studer recommends that organizations develop a ‘Standards of Behaviour’ contract “and have everyone, from CEO to receptionist, sign it.”

“A simple contract can motivate employees to create a kinder, gentler and more prosperous workplace”.

Ideally, applicants should be required to read and sign this contact before being hired, said Studer.

“You will be able to eliminate people from the race up front if they visibly balk at conforming to your corporate culture”.

A very different perspective is offered by a Toronto-based conflict resolution expert and human resources consultant.

Implementing strict codes of conduct on minor issues that may have cultural undertones is unlikely to fly in many in Canadian workplaces – given their diversity, says Michael Marmur, principal of Michael Marmur and Associates (MMA).

MMA is a firm of certified management consultants in Toronto, specializing in human capital issues.

Marmur suggests that companies communicate certain behavioural policies in “broad strokes” and learn to trust their employees in upholding them.

He acknowledged that behavioural differences often result in workplace friction, but said companies cannot rely solely on documented standards of conduct to pre-empt or respond to such issues.

Marmur also expressed concern that a written code on office conduct might send the message that management is attempting to muzzle employee behaviour.

Such a contract could also spark fears that the document would be used to fire individuals deemed by the company as “undesirables.”

Mamur isn’t against a written code.

However, he notes that written rules can be misused or ignored if not properly implemented.

“You can’t just tell people ‘do as I say’ and expect them to do so. There has to be a buy in. Good or acceptable behaviour has to be embedded.”

Many differences between co-employees can potentially disrupt business operations if individuals fail to simply communicate their concerns to one another, Mamur said.

“In one IT company I worked with, two people have been exchanging angry e-mails for quite sometime now. Another firm had both principals refusing face each other for more than eight months.”

Training in communication strategies and adopting programs such as those covering individual rights and acceptable workplace conduct are needed to instill a standard of behaviour acceptable to all workers, he said.

Frequent workplace complaints about co-workers include: overpowering use of perfume, lack of personal hygiene, smells that food emit, and the need for courtesies such as knocking before entering a room or cubicle.

Learning the “soft skills” required to navigate potential cultural minefields require time, understanding and openness, he said.

“Some might say that these things only need common sense.
However, that’s not always the case.”

He said written rules cannot always take into account the nuances of various cultures and differences in upbringing.

A balance is essential between setting down controls for good behaviour and trusting employees to act in an appropriate manner in the workplace, says Kate Erickson, a Toronto-based lawyer and human resources consultant specializing in ethical standards and issues.

“If you are going to document everything, you will be going back to an age when employers controlled every facet of the work environment.”

But Erickson said it’s important to have clear rules and regulations in the workplace regarding harassment and discrimination issues because laws require it and realities of working in a culturally diverse environment necessitate it.

But in diverse workplaces “communicating some policies with a broad brush is often a better strategy.”

Erickson said written regulations could easily collide with personal mores or cultural traditions and work against the company’s advantage.

“For example, if you’re going to ban spicy Indian food from the lunchroom microwave because of the aroma it emits, you’re not only discriminating against a cultural group – you could be limiting your opportunities to attract talent from that group as well.”

Rather than “legislate” every desired conduct, Erickson suggests that companies enhance recruitment processes with the aim of “including and nurturing” people from diverse backgrounds.

“Make sure you get people who support the sort of workplace culture you desire and then trust them to behave accordingly.”

Studer on the other hand believes standards of behaviour can address any and all aspects of behaviour at work: from how to interact with clients on the phone, to knocking on doors, to smiling and saying “thank you.”

For organizations interested in creating their own behaviour contract, Studer has the following advice:

Seek input from all employees
Do not let the human resources department write the contract and impose it on everyone else. Create a “Standards Team” to initiate the process and create a first draft. Make sure all employees have a chance to review the document and provide input before the contract is finalized.

Align desired behaviour with corporate goals
Review your organization’s long-term goals and the areas that need improvement. Define areas where the contract can help in meeting these goals. Include mechanisms for measuring the impact of the standards on your key metrics such as improved customer satisfaction or reduction of rejected items.

Be clear with the language
Be specific with what action or attitude you want to be exhibited. For example don’t write “Display a positive attitude”, but rather write “Smile, make eye contact and greet customers by name.”

Hold ceremonial Standards of Behaviour “roll out”
Once the document is formalized, hold a company-wide meeting to introduce the standards. Create and event around the signing of the contract. Make it fun but make sure everyone signs a pledge to uphold the contract.

Hold people accountable when they violate the contract
Make sure employees know they’ll be held accountable for behaviour outlined in the Standards of Behaviour. Sometimes this could mean meeting with the employee concerned and showing that person the document they signed. At other instances, disciplinary measures might be needed.

Update the Standards of Behaviour
Some directives might not be working as intended or the need for them might have changed or might no longer exist. The standards have to be dynamic and need to be updated from time to time.

“Your Standards of Behaviour should be a living document that serves your company…not the other way around,” said Studer.

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