Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Predatory and Clueless Behavior: There Is a Difference

Both can be problematic in the workplace.

I’ve mentioned before that behavior can be grouped into three categories.

Overt behavior is behavior on a plan. A person decides he or she is going to do something and then does it. Setting an alarm and getting to work on time is overt behavior.

Inadvertent behavior could be described as autopilot behavior. It is behavior without thinking like driving a stick shift. There is no “plan” to push down on the clutch when shifting gears, it’s—pardon the pun—automatic.

The third kind of behavior is opportunistic and could even be described as predatory. With this kind of behavior, the individual sees an opportunity to take advantage of a person or a situation and then does so.

Say I overheard two employees telling off-color jokes to each other, clearly inappropriate for a work setting. While I am not particularly offended by the jokes, I wish to get one of the two employees in trouble. I take advantage of the opportunity and complain to the supervisor that I was offended by the sexist or racist subject matter I overheard. Knowing that sexist or racist subject matter has no place in the workplace, I chose to take steps to get the other person in trouble, perhaps even fired. That's opportunistic behavior. I wasn't really offended, but I took the opportunity to use the situation to my advantage.

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Whenever there is a collision between opportunistic behavior and inadvertent behavior, the person operating on autopilot will generally be subordinated. Using the example above, there is no legitimate defense for telling inappropriate jokes at work. The offended person’s position will be the position honored or supported by management. Management cannot say to the offended person, “Just forget it and get over it.” Management’s position must be to support the offended person even if the offended person made a false claim. Management must assume that the offended person was truly offended. There is clearly opportunistic or predatory behavior in this situation.

Another example of an opportunity for predatory behavior happened in a case I had where the situation was one of an employee acting on autopilot, not overtly. A somewhat impulsive employee had been trying to get the attention of a fellow worker, a woman who kept to herself. When his attempts to start a conversation with the book-reading object of his interest got no response, he playfully tried to drip a water drop from his bottle onto her page thinking she just hadn’t noticed him. Not too bright? Maybe. Impulsive? Definitely. Malicious? Not at all.

Unfortunately, the cap came off, and she was soaked with water, exposing her beneath her blouse. She was upset to say the least, at one point wanted him fired etc. She had been embarrassed and felt humiliated. Fortunately, with my intervention, she accepted an apology and costs for cleaning her blouse. She wasn’t vindictive, as it turned out, just incredibly upset.

In this case, if the female employee had been opportunistic or predatory, she could have pressed her point and sought a remedy very different than what actually happened. She could have threatened or filed a sexual harassment case against the company. The result would've been that the company would have negotiated her exit with a signed, hold-harmless waiver in exchange for a payment that might have been in the $25,000 range.

As an employer, you need to be aware of situations that occur in your workplace where predatory behavior can occur. Depending on the employees involved, a “cleaning bill and an apology” might not get it. 

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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