It’s an employer’s nightmare. A valued employee is accused of unacceptable behavior such as bullying or sexual harassment. Your company conducts an investigation, as responsibility and the law require. But here the nightmare branches.
Not every investigation of problem behavior falls on one side of a bright line between illegal and innocent. An investigation may bring to light inappropriate conduct that, while serious, does not rise to the level of unlawful conduct. But does falling below illegality mean that the behavior is ok or that your potential liability as an employer is over? Of course not! These behaviors are risk indicators that your employee is on a trajectory towards larger offenses – a trajectory that, if not deflected, can be disastrous for your people and your business. Failing to respond appropriately sends the wrong message to your team and can even cause PR challenges that send the wrong message to the world. If the behavior escalates to the illegal in the future, you may also be held liable as an employer for ignoring these early warning signs.
At The Washington Firm, we have dealt with so many of these “driving toward the cliff” high-risk situations that we developed a new process I call Conduct Coaching (or more colloquially Offender Coaching. This is an underserved area in HR departments, employment law firms and HR consulting practices. So, let me fill in some blanks on what Conduct Coaching is, when its appropriate and what to look for.
What is Conduct Coaching?
Conduct Coaching, also called Offender Coaching is a specialized coaching process for parties on all sides of serious but not yet illegal problem behavior. It is one part of the employer’s prompt, appropriate and effective response to a complaint.
When Should You Use Conduct Coaching?
Seek out Conduct Coaching when an employee’s behavior, while not illegal, is inappropriate and you want to take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Conduct Coaching is an investment in top performers who are providing genuine contributions to the organization, but whose conduct is negatively impacting their performance, affecting others and putting the organization at risk.
What Can Conduct Coaching Accomplish?
Conduct Coaching helps the offending employee understand the boundaries of appropriate conduct and increases self-awareness about his/her conduct and its impact on others. Done correctly, this intervention has a demonstrated track record of success in helping valuable employees move forward successfully in their roles.
Who Should Provide Conduct Coaching?
In theory, Conduct Coaching could be provided by the offending employee’s manager, internal HR, or an outside expert. In practice there are often fewer viable choices. Having the manager attempt this form of coaching is unlikely to go well and can expose the company to greater risks if things go wrong. Managers are usually not expert in employment law, to say nothing of Conduct Coaching. Making the attempt can both be hindered by and disrupt their relationship with the offending employee, and is unlikely to be seen as fair by offended employees.
Internal HR departments may be better equipped to provide Conduct Coaching. Ask your HR contact if there is a specialist in Conduct Coaching or Offender Coaching in the department. If not, your HR department is still your best partner in determining whether Conduct Coaching is an appropriate action for your employee’s situation.
For now, outside HR experts remain the resource of choice for Conduct Coaching. Even so, relatively few HR firms have well-defined offerings in this new and specialized area. So, you need to conduct some due diligence before choosing a resource. Ask the following questions. “Do you have an expert in and a defined process for Conduct Coaching?” “What is your track record in steering offending employees back into appropriate performance?” “Do you provide a written report for the employer’s files to document the work and the employee’s responsiveness to the coaching.” “May I speak with a customer for whom you provided this service?”
Nothing about dealing with inappropriate employee behavior is easy. However, the remedies for unlawful behavior, while painful, are at least clear. In contrast, offending behavior by high performers that does not cross the line into unlawful creates a special kind of purgatory for both offended and offending employees, and a special set of risks for employers. Conduct Coaching offers a path to a real resolution for all concerned.