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Correcting Employee Bad Habits

Many years ago, I shared an office with a co-worker who chewed her gum voraciously. She snapped and popped it loudly all day long while I sat nearby gritting my teeth. Finally, I asked her if she could chew more quietly. She laughed and said, “People tell me all the time how annoying my gum chewing is” and continued to snap and pop away.  

My co-worker’s audible gum chewing habit bothered me. If you’re an employer or supervisor, what can and should you do about employees’ bothersome habits? 

First, determine whether the habit is “a” problem or “your” problem. For example, if you’re irritated because an employee frequently says “like” or “you know,” but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else, then that’s “your” problem. However, if an employee has frequent temper tantrums that scare people, then that’s “a” problem.

“Be very clear on the real impact of the bad habit,” says John Stark, Associate Dean of the School of Business & Public Administration at CSU, Bakersfield.  Dr. Stark also teaches management classes and advises that correcting employees’ benign bad habits could result in a loss of good will that is more harmful than the annoying behavior being addressed.

If the bad habit is causing problems for the organization or others, determine whether it is also violating some policy or procedure. Behavior that is against the rules (such as destroying company property while having a routine temper tantrum) is usually easier to address because of its objective nature (people usually don’t get their feelings hurt when they receive a talking-to because they knowingly broke the rules). Behavior that doesn’t violate policy (such as audible gum chewing) is more subjective and, thus, can be taken more personally by the offender. So, you’ll want to be extra tactful when addressing these issues.  

“Once you have your basis for addressing the habit, then you have a conversation with the employee,” says Stark. Here is a format that should help that conversation be successful.

Make a door-opener statement: “Robin, I need to talk to you about an issue that involves you.”

State the problem directly and tactfully: Policy violation: “You have a habit of losing your temper. Yesterday you became so angry that you threw your telephone through the window, which broke both things.” Personal issue: “You have a habit of chewing your gum so loudly that other people can hear it.”

State how the problem affects the business: Policy violation: “Destroying company property is a policy violation, which will result in disciplinary action. Additionally, you have lost your temper so many times that some of your co-workers are now afraid of you.” Personal issue: “Your audible gum chewing is distracting for some of your co-workers and is affecting their ability to work.”

State how the problem affects the employee: Policy violation: “Not being able to control your temper could result in future disciplinary action or could prevent you from being promoted into a supervisory position.” Personal issue: “I think you should know that chewing your gum so loudly is hurting your professional image.”

Ask and explore: Policy violation: “Is there something that’s causing you to lose your temper that I can help with? When you feel frustrated, is there something you can do to avoid losing your temper?” Personal issue: “Is there a reason you need to chew gum? Is there something you could do instead?”

Once the conversation is over, periodically check in with employees to ensure they stay on track and be patient with their progress. Stark says that, “Habits change only with thousands of repetitions, so we need to be patient and supportive of our employees, especially if they are putting in a good faith effort to change!”

Employers can and should help employees correct their bad habits, especially when those habits could be bad for them and the organization

Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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