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Pattern of Behavior or Isolated Event? Recognizing the Difference

Aug 21, 2014
Deb Muller

Patterns of behavior can occur in individuals, in teams and in entire departments, and they can be really tough to identify if you don’t know what to look for. Leadership can’t always immediately see what is an isolated incident and when there is actually a risky pattern of behavior that could put the organization at risk. The difference between a one-off accident and a pattern of behavior can be hard to distinguish from the corner office, but the right methods and practices can help.

Don’t Get Star Struck

It’s far too easy for leaders to concentrate on their star talent, because they have certain expectations for this employee, new behaviors will stand out like a sore thumb. Let’s say one of your hardest working employees, starts coming in late and producing poor work, it might seem like an isolated instance. The natural reaction is to treat this behavioral problem as you would any isolated instance, address the behavior and move on. If you don’t see THIS employee doing poorly again, you may assume the issue is solved.

However, if you take a step back and look at the whole team, you might see a pattern that has to do with a manager or a coworker. Where previously unnoticed, it’s now popping up in many different places. The solution begins to be a bit more nuanced in this case.

According to Reliable Plant, it is estimated that more than 65% of performance problems result from strained relationships between employees, not from deficits in individual employees’ skills or motivation. This is a classic case of not seeing the forest fire for the trees. It’s important to make sure that your team properly differentiates instances and patterns.

Look to Great Documentation

Leaders are often tasked with many direct reports or teams. The only way to ensure that a pattern is identifiable is to use consistent and structured documentation methods. Unless a pattern has been properly documented, it is be virtually impossible for these leaders to recognize and rectify workplace concerns. A proper documentation strategy across the organization is a must. There are several components to putting in place this type of strategy, but four are especially important:

  • It must be clear and simple for all parties.
  • Your process must be disseminated to all stakeholders.
  • The documentation verbiage must be agreed upon ahead of time.
  • There must be accountability from all participants.

If an occurrence is believed to be a one-time event, those in charge of documentation might not take the extra step or time to document a behavior or issue. By the time an event becomes a pattern or that event needs to be referenced for a perpendicular pattern, the opportunity has been lost. Teach your team that even one-time events need to be recorded.

There are other advantages to an “every time” documentation strategy – for example, if a team has multiple leaders, this documentation is an effective way to keep track of employee performance across management.

It’s Distinction that Matters

The distinction between patterns of behavior and isolated events is a vital one to make, not just to keep the work environment healthy, but also to defend against costly lawsuits.

“Courts have consistently ruled that a single verbal comment does not ordinarily make a harassment case. Of course, this doesn’t mean such behavior is acceptable in the workplace. The company should investigate and correct the behavior. If the investigation doesn’t find any other evidence of harassment, the incident is unlikely to violate the harassment laws.” -Legal HR resource pros, J.J. Keller and Associates

Your Human Resources team needs the right tools and defined practices in order to be able to identify trends. While Human Resources is tasked with protecting the company from costly litigation, they are often not the people who have the opportunity to document behavioral patterns – this task falls to hiring managers, department heads, and line directors. HR leaders need to express the importance of documenting issues in a structured format so that reported instances remain objective. Having a structured documentation process helps eliminate any negative connotations or biased language that may appear in reports, and it provides the employer and employee a neutral foundation to focus on the facts of the issue.

The importance of a consistent strategy is critical in companies of all sizes; in smaller companies who face legal action; just one lawsuit can potentially put a small business under, with the average claim clocking in at around $70k in legal fees and filing costs. A surprising 50% of all EEOC claims are against companies with fewer than 500 employees.

Technology Tells

Not surprisingly, more and more companies are turning to software to help them keep track of documentation and employee complaints. Comprehensive and intuitive technology can minimize an organization’s legal and financial risks by facilitating the consistent documentation of day-to-day employee relations issues. This also protects employees by providing a clear record when it comes to management, coworkers and processes. As issues are documented, employee relations software can automatically pinpoint patterns of behavior and alert the correct stakeholder, providing an opportunity to stop a pattern in its tracks.

With appropriate training, defined practices and comprehensive oversight, both employees and employers can play an active role in organizational effectiveness. Don’t let ignorance of proper employee relations practices become risky business. Ready to learn how HR Acuity On-Demand can meet the specific needs of your organization? Schedule a demo today.

Photo Credit: VizArch via bigstock

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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