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Facing up to disruptive behaviour

Employers have a 'duty of care' to all their employees and are responsible for preventing bullying and harassing behaviour. But how can they deal with challenging behaviour in the workplace that does not cross the disciplinary line? What can they do about employees who are merely 'difficult' rather than offensive?

Even if bullying and harassment policies haven't been broken, 'serial malcontents' at work can still be a major drain on management time and energy. The costs to the business may be just as bad too, including poor employee dynamics, low morale, inefficiency and potentially loss of staff.

Some difficult employees may have learnt that an undesirable behaviour is an effective way of getting what they want. A solution for employers is to lay clear boundaries to break this link so that it's no longer effective - and to do so as soon as possible.

It's important to evaluate the situation, establish the facts and take prompt and decisive action in line with internal policies and procedures. The meeting itself is usually best carried out as a face-to-face conversation in an unhurried atmosphere. Being prepared, knowing what to say, being able to back up statements with evidence rather than gossip and staying in control of the meeting will mean it's less likely the situation will be mishandled and aggravated.

Failure to grapple with a problem can reinforce it and denies the employee the chance to put it right. This is why it's crucial for managers to keep in touch with their staff and to be approachable. The sooner the problem is brought to light, the easier it is to remedy.

Sometimes a quiet word in private is all that it takes to turn awkward behaviour around. But striking the right tone, knowing how much to say and what to hold back is a subtle skill that benefits from training and experience.

Acas aims to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It offers advice on Challenging conversations and how to manage them and gives guidance in the booklet pdf icon Challenging conversations and how to manage them [195kb]. It also holds training events on managing persistent and difficult workplace behaviours.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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