Personnel e.bulletin – June 2015

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Employee Misbehavior
Prepared for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc.

Ideally, you lay out your business’s policies in an employee handbook, and your workers follow them to the letter. However, sometimes employees break the rules. The infraction may be minor and therefore can be dealt with in one conversation. But sometimes the behavior carries serious consequences for your company. In the latter case, employers are often advised to consult with an HR manager or department. If your business doesn’t have those HR resources, however, you need to know what to do when some of the thornier employee issues come up.

Keep two things in mind when dealing with a case of employee misbehavior: 

1.      Thoroughly investigate and document the situation to assess its severity.You must have adequate reason to discipline your employee from a legal standpoint.  It may be tempting to follow the same set procedure for every case, but with complex issues, you need to take steps to investigate the situation to better determine your response:

  • Look into your employee’s performance history to assess whether the behavior is part of a larger trend.
  • Talk to the employee. Part of that investigation is hearing the employee’s side of the story.  If multiple employees are involved, it’s necessary to hear from all parties. This will help you better document the issues and decide how to proceed.
  • Rely on facts, not emotions. If you leave out how you feel about an employee, you’ll be better able to determine how serious the situation is.
  • Carefully document what you’ve discovered.

2.    If you don’t know, get help. Remember that if you are unsure how to proceed in a difficult situation, it’s smart to talk to your manager or owner, or outside HR resources or legal counsel.

Three Real World Examples of Employee Misbehavior

Situation #1: When an Argument Escalates Into a Physical Fight

Two of your employees are always at odds. One day, a simple disagreement turns into a heated argument and suddenly, a fist is thrown.

Employees fighting at work can obviously hurt themselves, but others may get injured too, which could leave the company open to workers’ compensation claims. If this happens in front of clients, you can count on lost business expenses or possible legal troubles. Even after the fight is over, the effects will linger in hurt productivity and employee morale throughout the company.

Because the situation is so corrosive, you must act quickly, calmly, and directly.

  1. Break up the fight and separate the parties, sending them to different areas to cool down.  Make sure the employees and those around them don’t need medical attention.
  2. If serious, summon the police.  Be cautious and don’t dole out blame, and allow the police to investigate the matter.
  3. If permitted under your company’s policies, suspend the employees with pay while you investigate the matter.
  4. Although the automatic reaction to any workplace violence is to terminate the employees, a full and fair investigation – including each employee’s side of the story and the employees’ histories – is necessary to back up any disciplinary actions.
  5. As hard as it may be to believe, that investigation can sometimes reveal mitigating factors indicating that termination is not the best answer. Consult with an HR expert, management, or even outside counsel before proceeding with discipline to make sure you are doing what’s best for your company strategically and legally.

Situation #2: A Supervisor Who Lets Things Slide 

Part of a supervisor’s job is to enforce company rules. So when a foreman or other supervisor lets employees break those rules, things tent to snowball into larger issues. Employees might become confused about what’s expected of them if rules are applied inconsistently.

Be aware that applying rules inconsistently among employees can be perceived as discriminatory; can lead to a sense of unfair treatment that decreases morale and productivity; can hurt employee relations if a high performer can slide on the rules but others can’t; and can undermine the supervisor’s and company’s status in employees’ eyes.

Think of the mindset of the employee in those situations – “Why were we allowed to do that yesterday but not today?” or “When we work with Bobby, he lets us do it!” This creates distractions and resentment over not being allowed to do something that shouldn’t be happening anyway!

Also, in our legal system, employee handbooks have been perceived to create an obligation between an employer and employee. A representative of the employer not following that legal obligation can set the company up for claims later.

What should you do if a supervisor allows employees to break company rules?

Remember that the first step is to investigate and document the situation thoroughly:

  • Determine how serious the infraction is. If a supervisor overlooks the requirement of a uniform, that might be grounds for a gentle reminder of company policies. On the other hand, allowing employees to incorrectly report time is much more serious.
  • Get feedback from employees working under the supervisor, making sure you allow them to remain anonymous to the extent possible.
  • Look into the supervisor’s history to see if there’s a history of inconsistently following or applying the rules.
  • Talk to the supervisor.  A supervisor without a history of allowing employees to break the rules, who is willing to take responsibility, and who is proactive about fixing the situation, or who simply made an error, would merit less stringent action. On the other hand, a supervisor who routinely applies the rules inconsistently has committed a serious infraction may need to be suspended or terminated.

Possible disciplinary actions: 

  • Talk to the supervisor and formulate a plan to correct the issue.
  • Implement increased oversight of the supervisor.
  • If it turns out that the individual isn’t supervisor material, find another assignment within your company if that is possible and is a good business decision.
  • Terminate the supervisor.

If you choose one of the first two actions, follow up to make sure the supervisor is better enforcing the rules.

Situation #3: “I’m running late. Could you punch in for me?”

The Fair Labor Standards Act says that employers must keep accurate records of nonexempt (hourly) employees’ hours. Committing time card fraud is therefore a serious infraction.  Also, by paying employees for hours they haven’t worked, your company loses money.

How should you handle one employee punching in for another?
Remember that the first step is to investigate and document the issue:

  • Look at your payroll records to determine how serious the infraction is for both employees.
  • Examine the employees’ histories to determine whether this is a trend or a single incident of an employee asking another to fill in a time card.
  • Interview the employees about the incident.

Also, if the following procedures aren’t in place to ensure that time reporting rules are followed, you can take this opportunity to implement them:

  • If you use a time clock and it’s not already in a place where you can observe employees punching in and out, move it so that you can monitor the situation.
  •  Hold on to copies of time cards so that they can be reviewed and compared to past time cards.  Keep an eye out for discrepancies.
  • Quarterly reconcile your payroll with someone other than the person who usually handles payroll.

Possible disciplinary actions:
Even if this was a one-time incident and the employees had no history of time card fraud, talk to your employees about the issue and make clear why it’s a serious issue. If this is an ongoing trend that you’ve adequately documented and investigated, suspension and termination could be the next steps.

Because employee misbehavior can disrupt morale and productivity in your business and possibly have legal and financial implications, it’s important to go through the necessary steps rather than reacting emotionally to a situation or following the exact same procedures no matter the circumstances. Proper investigation, documentation, and communication with the employee(s) who misbehaved are crucial. That information – along with consultation with experts when a problem is particularly sticky – will help you determine the proper discipline to promote a safe, fair, and productive workplace.


This content was developed for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc. ( Please consult your HR professional or attorney for further advice, as laws may differ in each state. Laws continue to evolve; the information presented is as of April 2015. Any omission or inclusion of incorrect data is unintentional. Please note this article is not intended to provide legal advice or to substitute for supervisor employment law training.

The PHCC Educational Foundation, a partnership of contractors, manufacturers and wholesalers was founded in 1987 to serve the plumbing-heating-cooling industry by preparing contractors and their employees to meet the challenges of a constantly changing marketplace. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting the Foundation by making a contribution at

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