When you think about skunks, what do you think? Of course, the most common response I hear to that simple question is, "They stink!" And as I always say, the irony is that they are really quite adorable little animals, with a terrible reputation. It doesn't matter how soft their fur is or how sweet their faces are if they release that foul spray. Why do skunks spray? They spray when they are scared, defensive, territorial, angry, trapped, or frustrated.

People can be much the same. When we feel those emotions, people are often prone to "spray"--by giving off negative energy all around the office, for example, such that everyone within two miles feels the impact. And like skunks, it doesn't matter how nice a person you really are, deep down, if what you're known for is "skunking." Our CEO, Danny Meyer, coined this term in his best-selling book, Setting the Table. At Hospitality Quotient, we believe that having skunks on your team is a sure recipe for creating a toxic work environment.

Most organizations have a skunk or two (or more). Our clients know what we mean immediately when we talk about skunking. Most people have worked with one--the eye-rolling, sarcastic, negative, complaining, everything-is-wrong kind of co-worker. The impact of this behavior is pretty universal. Productivity suffers, customer experience is inconsistent or downright poor, morale sinks, and the toxicity spreads.

So, we can all agree that skunking is incredibly detrimental to workplace culture. But I find that many leaders have a hard time dealing with skunks, because they don't know how to hold people accountable for behaviors that are not directly tied to the outputs of their job. While it's easy to manage staff members' performance on the basis of the quality or timeliness of their work, it's harder to hold people accountable to the more subjective performance measures. How do you tell someone that he complains too much? That he doesn't smile enough? That his behavior has a negative impact on the team?

The first step in dealing with workplace issues like skunking is setting clear behavioral expectations for your team. Behavior is just as important as the objective job performance metrics. Being specific about what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable is as simple as describing what you see and the impact those behaviors have on others. Employees will only know your definition of success in their jobs if you share it with them--and it's your job, as the leader, to set those expectations, embody them consistently, and hold people accountable to them. The second step is to address the skunking as soon as it occurs. It is always preferable to give this feedback immediately in order to stop the behavior quickly, remembering that if you don't acknowledge the behavior as being inappropriate, you are condoning it.

Skunking behavior can stem from a personal issue or a work issue. It's important to determine the root cause, so that you as a leader have the opportunity to build greater trust around understanding what's going on with your team members personally, or in the case of a work issue, to seek a solution. Either way, the information you can glean from learning more about why people are skunking can help you create a stronger, more productive workplace.

It's also important to have a dose of empathy in how you approach the matter. Sometimes when people are skunking, they don't realize what they're doing or how it affects others. So your feedback can, in fact, build self-awareness that will help improve behavior.

In many organizations, there is a high level of frustration among the staff because leaders are not doing anything about the skunks. Ignoring skunking behavior sends a message to your team that you condone it, and unfortunately, skunking is contagious. So the longer you put off dealing with skunks, the more frustration you will have. It only takes one skunk to turn an otherwise positive and energetic workplace into a toxic wasteland if the negativity is allowed to continue. If you don't quell skunking behavior as soon as you see it, you'll be missing an opportunity to give the "skunk" feedback, and the rest of the team will have to suffer with the intolerable negativity.

So, as much as you may be tempted to just accept skunking as part of workplace life, don't be fooled by those cute faces and bushy tales. Set clear behavioral expectations, and hold skunks accountable; your work environment depends on it.

Published on: Dec 4, 2014