Proving the problem | How to evidence poor employee behaviour

Written by Andrew Moore on 11 August 2023

Navigating toxic behaviour within the workplace can be challenging for employers, particularly when it comes to substantiating and documenting poor employee conduct. It’s a predicament many leaders face – the knowledge that toxicity exists, yet the inability to take meaningful action without concrete proof to support your claims.

In fact, according to our recent survey of 466 UK employers23% feel they can’t address toxic behaviour due to a lack of any clear evidence to base conversations around.

Gathering substantial evidence of an employee’s toxic behaviour is tricky, not least because this sort of behaviour is often hidden. Nevertheless, evidence to support your concerns is vital, as it serves as the bedrock upon which reasonable and justified measures can be taken, ultimately mitigating potential risks that may arise from unwarranted actions.

In this blog, we explore the strategies employers can employ to substantiate claims of toxicity so that you are equipped to address these issues head-on, resulting in a healthier and more productive workplace environment.

What tools can employers use to evidence toxic behaviour?

There are several tools employers can use to gather evidence of toxic behaviour:

  • Observations: Direct observation of the behaviour by yourself or the person responsible for handling the matter is a valuable form of evidence. It provides firsthand accounts of the toxic behaviour and its impact on the work environment.
  • Employee comments: Pay attention to comments made by other employees, whether they are casual remarks or more direct interactions. These comments can shed light on toxic behaviour and contribute to the overall evidence.
  • Employee feedback surveys: Regular employee feedback surveys allow individuals to anonymously express their experiences and concerns. These surveys can reveal patterns or specific incidents related to toxic behaviour, providing additional evidence.
  • Meeting notes: Notes from various recorded meetings (such as investigations, grievances, disciplinary proceedings, or board meetings) can serve as evidence. These notes may capture instances where toxic behaviour was discussed or reported.
  • Absence record: Properly documenting absences is essential, as frequent or prolonged absences can sometimes be indicative of toxic behaviour. Tracking and recording absences can help identify patterns or consistent issues.
  • Missed deadlines: Tangible and measurable evidence can be found in instances where toxic individuals consistently fail to meet deadlines or hinder the progress of others. This type of evidence demonstrates the negative impact of toxic behaviour on productivity and collaboration.
  • Exit interviews: Exit interviews offer valuable (and often more candid) insights from departing employees on their experiences and observations. While it’s important to consider potential biases, if multiple employees identify similar toxic behaviours or patterns, it strengthens the evidence of toxic behaviour in the workplace.
  • HR cafés / HR open sessions: HR cafés are a relatively new approach that can be effective in providing insight into staff morale and wellbeing and uncovering issues that might be bubbling under the surface. They are essentially scheduled drop-in sessions with an HR representative, offering employees an open platform to discuss work-related matters. These relaxed sessions enable HR to take informal measures to tackle issues, as well as signpost employees to useful resources and company benefits, and escalate shared concerns to relevant leadership. Unlike staff surveys, they offer person-to-person engagement, which allows for more in-depth discussion and helps staff to feel seen, heard and valued. 

Again, it’s important to recognise that toxic behaviour is often covert and isn’t always visible to those in authority. Therefore, evidence may not always be apparent on the surface. Toxicity can manifest in subtle ways or through a combination of behaviours and incidents.

For this reason, you may need to rely on a combination of evidence, including written documentation, witness accounts, recorded incidents, and measurements that can be interpreted differently. It’s the aggregate of these factors that will enable you to identify someone as exhibiting toxic behaviour. Plus, collecting diverse types of evidence strengthens your case and provides a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.

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How should employers collate evidence?

Written, recorded evidence is key. If the evidence is verbal, it’s advisable follow up after the interaction and ask the individual who provided this evidence to confirm what was discussed in writing. This could be as simple as sending an email to the effect of, “When we spoke earlier, you mentioned X, Y and Z. Could you please confirm my understanding is correct?”

Having documented accounts to support instances of toxic behaviour, whatever the format, leaves less room for interpretation and will help to ensure an accurate account.

It’s important to ensure that this information cannot be accessed by any unauthorised person, so make sure it’s stored securely and in line with company data protection protocols.

What if we're asked to keep things confidential?

Sometimes, employees who provide evidence of a colleague’s toxic behaviour might ask for this to remain confidential. While it’s understandable that those who report on a colleague’s poor conduct might worry about retaliation, this shouldn’t become a barrier to you taking steps to address the problem.

Ideally, you should encourage the employee to entrust you with moving the matter forward. Let them know that what they have shared with you won’t become public knowledge; however, individuals facing such accusations will, in a controlled way, be made aware of the allegations against them.

To persuade the employee, it’s important to genuinely understand their concerns. Ask them why they want the matter to remain confidential and reassure them as best you can. You should also:

  • Talk through what the next steps would look like, the involvement they would have in the process, and how addressing the problem could make things better.
  • Assure them that they are protected from victimisation under employment law, and that the company takes this protection very seriously.
  • Discuss any practical steps you could take to re-assure them, for example changing teams or workspaces while the matter is looked into.
  • Challenge the fear. Point out that something must have concerned them enough to confide in you, and unless you take this forward and use this evidence, nothing will change.

Crucially, how you deal with these situations will dictate how much trust employees have in you, and how willing they are to let you proceed with their evidence. If reports of toxic behaviour haven’t been taken seriously or treated confidentially in the past, then employees will naturally have reservations about their evidence being aired, or may not come forward at all. If you can, point to where similar situations have been resolved effectively before as a way of reassuring employees.

Are we obligated to investigate?

As a leader in your company or organisation, once evidence of toxic behaviour has been brought to your attention, you have a duty to look into these concerns. While it’s important to reassure the employee giving evidence, it’s equally important to convey the gravity of the situation and make it clear that these matters are too serious for you not to investigate them.

There may be some situations where the nature of the disclosure means you have a legal obligation to act or alert the relevant authority. For example, if the evidence points to potentially criminal acts, child endangerment, breach of health and safety law, or other regulatory breaches. This would likely amount to whistleblowing and you should consult the relevant policy.

We have evidence – what happens now?

The action you take when dealing with potential toxic behaviour will largely depend on the evidence at hand and the specific nature of the allegations.

The initial stages should simply be about fact-finding, as you will want to avoid creating or exacerbating a toxic situation. While the evidence may give you cause for concern, you will first need to carry out some enquiries to verify the information before any formal action is taken.

When speaking with the employee accused of toxic behaviour, remain neutral and relaxed. Such an approach often elicits a similar response, which will facilitate a more conducive conversation in which the employee feels able to open up as opposed to getting defensive.

Remember, this isn’t a police interrogation; it’s an information-gathering exercise. During this initial discussion with the employee, you should:

  • Be open. Let them know you have been made aware of some concerns and just want to get their perspective so that you have a better understanding.
  • Allow them the opportunity to have their say, then ask questions to verify the information contained within the evidence.
  • Verify dates, times and locations. Ask them to confirm the individuals present, the sequence of events, and the motivations behind their actions (the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’) and consider the impact on others.
  • Assure them that you are simply carrying out fact-finding at this stage, but make them aware that a full investigation may be needed.

Final thoughts

While the path to addressing toxic behaviour may be intricate, the commitment you display as an employer in substantiating and managing these concerns speaks volumes about your organisation’s values and ethos. Your diligence in gathering evidence serves not only as a foundation for action but also as a testament to your dedication to a healthier workplace environment.

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Tackle toxic behaviour confidently with WorkNest

When it comes to potential employee misconduct, mishandling the situation can be costly, and doing nothing can be even worse.

From gathering evidence and investigating the issue to having difficult conversations and dealing with any subsequent disciplinary process, WorkNest assigns dedicated Employment Law and HR experts to help you address toxic behaviour efficiently and appropriately, before your workplace suffers.

We can also assist with policy creation, conduct grievance and disciplinary meetings on your behalf, and train managers to handle these matters more confidently.

To discuss your situation and find the right solution for you, call our team on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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