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Improving Employee Work Habits

Thu, 10/22/2009 - 11:50pm
Martin Seidenfeld, Ph.D.

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Improving Employee Work Habits

Every employee, while on the job, manifests a set of work habits. These habits relate to such things as attendance, punctuality, observance of safety rules, decorum, personal grooming, neatness and orderliness, use of language, use of drugs or alcohol, amount of time spent not working (goofing off), and behavior towards others. Employees with poor work habits are expensive:

  • - Excessive tardiness and absences delay production.
  • - Ignoring safety rules can cause wasteful accidents.
  • - Lack of neatness wastes time while coworkers hunt for misplaced tools or equipment.
  • - Poor personal grooming affects other workers, lowering organizational morale.
  • - Using obscene or abusive language creates dissent and interferes with team work.
  • - Goofing off reduces organizational effectiveness, raising the cost of doing business.

Employees with poor work habits tend to upset their fellow employees, who become resentful when it appears that one employee is allowed to violate organizational rules. This tends to create conflicts which interfere with effective teamwork.

By helping employees correct poor work habits, supervisors help themselves, their employees, and the organization. When organizational rules are ignored, confusion, disorderliness, and decreased productivity may result.

Often, work habit problems seem trivial. An employee is late one morning or spends a bit more time than is really acceptable on a personal phone call or chats a little too long with a coworker. Because they don’t want to be perceived as petty, some supervisors ignore such incidents. But as they accumulate, they can grow into significant problems.

Most of us have been brought up to respect others’ privacy and “mind our own business.” That makes dealing with poor work habits, such as how an employee dresses, how often he/she bathes, how much he/she drinks, or how sloppy their work area is, an uncomfortable supervisory responsibility. But dig into an employee’s tardiness and you may discover a failing marriage. Investigate the sloppy dresser and you may find a case of substance abuse.

Organizations are concerned about their image, and such “personal” matters as punctuality, decorum, and dress contribute to its public image and help define its “corporate culture.” For example, if an employee’s work area is dirty and cluttered, customers or other employees may perceive the organization as disorganized and inefficient.

An employee who is allowed to continue poor work habits without correction is not being provided good leadership since his/her future depends upon meeting the organization’s behavioral standards.

Seemingly small work habit problems easily mushroom into big problems requiring time and energy, requiring much supervisory effort. If an unsatisfactory work habit is not corrected quickly the employee may come to believe that the behavior is acceptable. More often than not this will lead to real disciplinary problems later on, the most common of which are poor attendance and tardiness, obscene or abusive language, drug and alcohol-related conduct, disloyalty, carelessness or negligence, dishonesty, dress and grooming problems, insubordination, fighting, moonlighting, and, only relatively rarely, poor performance.

Failure to correct poor work habits reflects negatively on the supervisor’s managerial ability. But by taking time to observe and correct employees’ work habits, supervisors demonstrate a caring attitude and make clear their expectation of high quality performance.

Obviously, supervisors must know their organization’s rules and see to it that employees – especially recently hired employees – know the rules also. As a supervisor, you should frequently talk with your employees, complimenting them when appropriate, so you don’t seem to just notice them when things go wrong. But when you see that corrective action is needed, act immediately. Remember that your goal is to change behavior, not to punish or possibly lose an employee.

The proper handling of correction is a leadership skill all supervisors must master.

Some supervisors, wanting to be well liked, try to ignore minor problems until the situation becomes critical and then hastily over-react, causing employee resentment. Other supervisors consider themselves tough disciplinarians enforcing a set of rules and punishing offenders. Their authoritarian tactics arouse hostility and fear in employees, and often invites resistive, passive-aggressive behavior.

Before speaking to an employee about poor work habits, think about the employee’s possible motives. Is there a lack of training or information? Does the employee have off-the-job problems? Does he/she misunderstand instructions? Is there deliberate rebellion against the organization’s rules?

Common pitfalls supervisors make when correcting faulty work habits include correcting in the presence of others; trying to correct while angry; correcting hastily, before verifying facts; and delaying dealing with the problem when it is needed.

In dealing with employee work habits it is especially important to focus on observable behavior. A supervisor’s descriptions of employee behavior should be clear and specific, and quantifiable whenever possible. Select a private place to talk to the employee to avoid embarrassment. Try to make sure you will not be interrupted.
Here are the five specific steps to follow when attempting to correct poor work habits:

  1. State the problem clearly and specifically.
  2. Ask the employee the reasons for the problem.
  3. Ask the employee for a solution.
  4. Agree on a plan and get strong commitment to the plan.
  5. Set up a review date.

Here is an example of using this method.

1 .“I’m concerned that you’re not getting to work on time. Last Thursday you were fifteen minutes late, and the week before you were twenty minutes late on Wednesday.”

2. Then ask, “How come?” Listen attentively to the employee’s answer. Careful, active listening is the easiest way to discover the facts, and lets the employee know you are willing to consider seriously what he/she has to say. It will also encourage the worker to accept responsibility for solving his/her own problems.
In this example, the employee might tell you that some days he/she gets stuck in traffic. Listen carefully and then summarize the feeling or ideas communicated, to show your understanding.

3. Together with the employee, develop a plan to correct the poor work behavior.
First, ask the employee for his/her own solutions to the problem: people are more motivated to implement self-generated ideas than ones imposed from on high. The employee who has been late might suggest leaving home twenty minutes earlier every day to allow for occasional traffic jams.

4. Accept any reasonable solution, but make sure some definite action is planned.
Once a plan for improvement is agreed on, get a definite time commitment to that plan, e.g., ask the employee to agree to leave home twenty minutes earlier every day for the next three weeks. Asking for and receiving a commitment to follow through stimulates a surprising amount of performance improvement.

5. Arrange to meet with the employee at the end of the three weeks to review his/her progress. This shows your willingness to offer friendly support and suggests confidence in his/her ability to improve. At the end of the time period, review the employee’s performance. If the employee is on time for the next three weeks, thank him/her. If the employee should still be coming in late, you need to negotiate a new plan or consider disciplinary action.

By following these steps a successful supervisor will save the organization from possible losses, help turn a potential problem employee into a a valued team member, gain the respect of his employees and demonstrate his own leadership skills.

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