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What to do when good employees go bad

19 February 2020: employees in demanding, high-octane roles such as accountants can occasionally behave poorly, when stress exceeds recommended levels or problems at home spill over into the workplace. As a manager or owner; once you’re aware of bad behaviour, what is the best process to follow? Rachel Willcox investigates.

When you think about most accountancy jobs – the combination of deadlines, a heavy workload and being in the firing line of ever-demanding clients – and combine them with the personal stresses of everyday life, it’s no wonder that some people struggle to cope.

The knock-on effect on their behaviour is perhaps inevitable and individuals can behave in unusual or negative ways: high-paid staff stealing food from the staff canteen or fare dodging on the underground, for example. If it’s out of character, the chances are that stress could be to blame. The question is, if you become aware of it, what’s the best process to follow?

Peter Ryding, mentor and founder of e-coaching interactive software VicYourCoach.com, says that accountants need to balance firmness about the importance of strong ethics with wider compassion if people are showing uncharacteristic behaviour.

“A critical part of being a modern leader is to clearly define what is and what is not tolerated. And then walk the talk,” Ryding says. “When someone is acting outside acceptable norms, it must not be tolerated.” But before you reach for their P45, step back for a minute and consider if there may be a mental health element and the behaviour is a symptom of a deeper issue,” Ryding says. Under such circumstances, be ready to switch to compassionate mode.

With a quarter of workers across the UK and Europe risking health problems due to stress at work, according to research conducted by The Myers-Briggs Company, it is in an organisation’s best interest, particularly in demanding fields such as accounting, to work with their employees on their self-awareness, says Chartered Psychologist and Head of Thought Leadership at the company, John Hackston.

Some level of stimulation and challenge is important for peak performance, but beyond a certain level, pressure creates anxiety and performance can suffer. Some of the key triggers for stress include public speaking and making big decisions. “Our research into stress in the workplace revealed that 70% of workers in the UK and Europe find their work stressful, and four in 10 think that stress is not handled well in their workspace,” Hackston says.

Encouraging regular, constructive conversations with employees can help to prevent issues escalating, says Colin Adams, a Director of Henley Training Associates. “Have regular, one-to-one ‘supervision’ or performance feedback review sessions, during which your team members are encouraged to talk openly about how they feel they’re getting on, what aspects of their job they feel they’re doing well, and what aspects of their work they’re finding difficult or stressful.”

Everyone will have their own coping mechanisms. By understanding your own personality type and building your self-awareness, both employees and managers can become more adept at flagging their stress triggers, Hackston says.

“For example, some people might find it stressful when they have to meet new people, whereas others thrive in these situations. When stressed, some people may benefit from seeking support from family or friends, where others may find more relaxation in exercise.”