I have a staff member on my team who sometimes makes inappropriate comments. What he considers to be jokes makes others feel uncomfortable and there is definitely a slightly racist and sexist undertone to some of his comments. Sometimes, while he cackles away at some one-liner he has cracked, I can see other colleagues bristling as they digest what he has just said. It is my job to tackle this, so what do you suggest? BM, Al Ain
Thanks for the question BM, I wish I knew more about your team's personality. Previously, I've seen this type of situation successfully handled by the group itself, publicly denouncing an individual's words by communicating both their disapproval and non-acceptance. Peer-group pressure can essentially ostracise the inappropriate, without it coming from a place of hatred or intent of bullying if:
• It targets an action and not a person.
• Its intention is a positive outcome for the workplace environment from which all will gain.
If your team is not showing signs of moving in that direction, then you will need to tackle this one head-on yourself. From your observation, this guy believes people can exist at the expense of others. My guess is that he is either very young, very inexperienced with limited social exposure, or if neither, then simply in denial of acceptable human and social norms. Either way, and in the spirit of fairness, what are others observing? Would these three tips help?
Step 1: Check with the team first. What are they willing and able to tell you beyond what you are perceiving - after all perceptions are reality in a work environment only if they belong to the majority. It certainly wouldn't be wise to move to Step 2 if you were acting on untruths. A general conversation should reveal what they feel to be acceptable or unacceptable or inappropriate behaviour. The forum could be upfront and transparent in relation to what you are witnessing, or masked as an opportunity to build a code of workplace behaviour together.
Step 2: Have a chat with the guy. Depending on his personality type, either be straightforward or use some props allowing him to deduce the effect of his jokes and one-liners. A few years back there were some great HSBC advertisements with a series of photos that could be interpreted differently depending on who you are. For example, a picture of a couple standing outside a tent in a natural environment next to another picture of the same couple in a luxury five-star hotel room offered two captions - heaven or hell? If he's unwilling or incapable of making the connection to your message, then perhaps you simply need to be "as subtle as a sledgehammer" and spell it out.
Step 3: Be clear on what your expectations are from this moment on and schedule a follow-up meeting to monitor those expectations so he's clear that this is not over until a sustained change in approach is evident. Step 3 is also a great opportunity to monitor how you are handling the situation too. In Australia many years ago, in the eyes of employment courts, an employee was innocent in any industrial relations trial until the employer could demonstrate without doubt that standards had been given, refreshed, measured and discussed on a regular basis. This law certainly made me more aware of my commitment to set all people up for success - a big part of that is to communicate, communicate and communicate. There's no doubt action needs to be taken, either by the group or yourself. Sweeping things "under the carpet" never provides a long-term positive outcome.
Tackle with facts, provide indisputable expectations and measure away.
Debbie Nicol, the managing director of Dubai-based business en motion, is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture. Email her at email@example.com for the Workplace Doctor's advice on your challenges, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague