An employee sneezes at work. What do you do?

For some of us, we might move with a laptop to the cafeteria or start guzzling orange juice. But what if there's someone on your team who has a  bad attitude? We put up with it, we ignore it. Now, new research suggests that bad behavior is actually contagious, and the sooner you identify that, the sooner you can stop the contagion from spreading.

Harvard Business Review released a study recently that looked at how employees act when they are around someone who misbehaves. They found that 37% of those studied were more likely to do something wrong if they worked with someone with a history of bad behavior, almost like mimicking what they see and giving ourselves permission.

The same study found it is also easier to mimic bad behavior. We've all experienced something similar. The person who downloads a commercial app for free on an illegal site, then tells everyone else it's fine. Suddenly, it's on every desktop in the office. But good behavior, according to the study, doesn't seem to spread in the same way. If one person cleans out the refrigerator in the lunchroom without being asked, it's not like everyone else starts doing the same thing. We all smile and nod instead, then go back to work.

From what I've seen, the reason we tend to copy the bad actors is because we wait and see if anyone will reprimand that person or if doing something a little edgy will actually get us into trouble. I remember observing this at a startup where I worked for several years. One person kept coming in late, even though the culture at that firm was one that definitely rewarded and even revered those who came in right on time. It's almost like you can see the wheels turning. Bob in accounting shows up late, and doesn't get into trouble. The next morning, Sue in marketing tries the same thing. Suddenly, no one ever arrives on time.

Yet, when someone is always on time, we barely notice. Or, we even ridicule that person. Why is that? For starters, the report suggests that bad behavior is just easier. It takes less effort to slack off, to come in late, to steal a few coffee bean packages. You don't have to work very hard to act like a jerk, download illegal software, or squeak your chair constantly. Acting in kindness and showing respect? It's harder. You have to read people, use emotional intelligence to pick up on non-verbal cues (instead of just ignoring the cues), and put effort into acting in a way that is more noble. If someone arrives at work on time, it's because that person left early enough, found a route through traffic, managed their time, and worked a little harder at time management than everyone else.

And, we all want a free pass. An office where there are too many rules and regulations tends to create an environment where the employees are looking for ways to get around those rules, even if some of them are unfair. At an office where the boss expects you to wear branded clothing to promote the company, it only takes one person to be the outlier and wear a non-branded shirt. It pushes the envelope in a good way (if you are against forced marketing dictums) and lets everyone know that--hey, this weird rule about what you wear isn't that serious. Go ahead and break the rules.

But I have one other theory on this topic. Not only is bad behavior easier, and breaking the rules tells everyone in the office that the rules are a bit ridiculous, but our natural inclination is to find ways to not work as hard. We like being unproductive, surfing the web and mindlessly clicking through social media. It's human nature. If you're a boss, it's important to realize that bad behavior with one employee does set off a firestorm, because it's the go-to response for most workers. After all, that's why we call it work.

Published on: Mar 12, 2018