Managing (Un)Acceptable Behaviour


The prevalence of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace is like the omni present bad weather. It pervades all aspects of business activity, and impacts, over and above the tangible effects of theft and fraud, employer/employee relations severely.

Employees are assets and are responsible for generating wealth in it’s widest context. But employees may also pose the biggest single risk to the organisation. Management is about managing risk, including the risk posed by employees.

Perceptions and attitude influence behaviour. Should an employee have the perception that he or she is ‘entitled’ to steal and that they can get away with theft, the prevailing attitude would be one of ‘ willingness’ to steal in the work environment. Robert Vroom’s well known “Expectancy Theory” is applicable:   – if a person expects to succeed (with for instance theft) that person will most probably proceed.The resultant behaviour in this instance will most probably be unacceptable.

How are perceptions formed? There are four factors involved, i.e. genetic predisposition, learned behaviour, environmental factors and triggers. Genetics and learned behaviour are what one employs. (For this reason, proper pre-employment screening/vetting is essential.) By effectively managing behaviour in in the internal environment, management can reduce the expectancy to succeed with unacceptable behaviour. Triggers, on the other hand, are mostly generated in the external environment to which the individual is exposed. Effective management in the internal environment is the only defence option!

backlit clouds dawn 1118874 - Managing (Un)Acceptable Behaviour

Managing Behaviour

Managing behaviour may sound Orwellian, but in reality, it amounts to nothing more than effective management of employees. (Poor management is as damaging as unacceptable behaviour!) Many line managers do not believe that managing unacceptable behaviour form part of their responsibilities. They believe that the HR function or Security should deal with unacceptable behaviour. This, unfortunately, is not true. Unacceptable behaviour must be dealt with as and when it manifests itself.

Behaviour management is a total systems approach to the management of people, utilising scientific methodology, and is applied throughout the entire life cycle of the employee, and in all business functions of the organisation. No exceptions!

An important requirement of such a program is the absolute commitment of senior management to Integrity and Ethical behaviour. Should senior management act unethically, or are perceived to act unethically, all efforts to coerce employees to behave ethically will be in vain.

Behaviour Management Methodology

Behaviour management starts with the recruitment process, and only ends after the termination process.

Recruitment and Screening/vetting

As said before, one employs the genetic makeup as well as all learned behaviour of any individual to date. This emphasises the need for an effective recruitment and screening/vetting regimen. A phased approach will increase the economy, effectiveness and validity of the process.

Several instruments are available that may be applied, such as

  1.  A comprehensive application document/questionnaire. An abbreviated and concise CV is fine to identify possible candidates for an appointment but is usually unable to support the vetting process.
  2. The personal interview. Interviews are not only about asking questions. Asking meaningful questions and the ability to analyse the information gathered properly, are essential.
  3. Use of screening instruments – Various instruments are available, i.e. psychometric instruments, skills assessments, personal information verification and Polygraph or EyeDetect assessments.


Ensure that an effective social contract between employer and a new employee comes into being. This does not refer to the employment contract; the new employee should also be contractually bound to continuously display ethical behaviour in the workplace.

Induction process

Inform the newly appointed employee of the ethical imperatives of the position, over and above the technical requirements. This includes but is not limited to an explanation of the extent to which the employee will be subject to assessments regarding ethical behaviour within the workplace.

Capacity building

Whenever employees receive training of whatever nature, it must include a section regarding the importance of continuous ethical behaviour in the work environment.

Managing behaviour

It is important to create and continuously enforce the perception that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. Workplace surveys and periodic confirmation of adherence to the social contract are effective ways to foster this perception.

It is essential that the responsible manager shall deal with any act of unacceptable behaviour immediately, irrespective of how minor or insignificant it may seem. Continuous management training (formal courses, workshops, refresher training, seminars et cetera) for managers at all levels, but more so at the lower levels, is indispensable.

Dynamic Code of Conduct

In order to be able to deal effectively with unacceptable behaviour, a dynamic Code of Conduct, accepted by most employees, is vital. The Code of Conduct should provide precise instructions regarding its interpretation, in order to avoid subjective application as far as possible. Perceived subjective interpretation (by management) is a major source of discontent amongst employees.

Rewards and Recognition

An important aspect of the program is the recognition and reward of acceptable behaviour. Recognition is a powerful motivator! Linking recognition with a rewards program, no matter how insignificant, is a positive stimulus in the work environment.


A well-constructed internal communication program is indispensable but often neglected. The only tool managers, companies or organisations of whatever nature, have to influence the behaviour of employees is communication. The important messages to be communicated should be about

–      the necessity of all employees to display acceptable behaviour;

–      to give recognition of those displaying acceptable behaviour; and

–      to inform about acts of unacceptable behaviour as well as the sanctions applied.

Termination process

When an employee resigns, it is incumbent to assess the potential risk that employee may pose after he or she has left the company. Remember, an employee leaves with a particular knowledge of the company. In many instances, it may be of no great consequence, but in a critical few instances, it may be. At least possible risks should be identified and countermeasures put in place.


Managing behaviour is part of the total management process. It should never be delegated, but it often is. It is a bad idea to ignore it but many managers do. The reason? Managers often see this as something unpalatable, something they do not want to become involved with, something that someone else is better equipped to do.

Remember – managing behaviour is not about doing anything other than what you as a manager is supposed to do. Managing behaviour is all about the way in which you do what you are supposed to do.

Hendrik van Rooyen