When it comes to employee misconduct, recent research shows that it often goes unaddressed – which is unsurprising when you consider that about 60% of workplace misconduct is never reported at all. This can be problematic as employee misconduct jeopardises a key aspect of an employer’s duty to the workplace – the development and/or maintenance of a safe, ethical and welcoming environment for their employees. Unchecked employee misconduct has the potential for immeasurable harm, not only towards the existence of a safe and healthy workplace but also to an organisation’s productivity, employee culture and bottom line.

However as an employer, before you can address cases of employee misconduct, it is important that you have a strong understanding of what it constitutes and the various forms it can take. This will not only ensure that you are able to spot its occurrence more efficiently but allow you to address the issue in a manner that mitigates any harm to the company and other employees who may be impacted.

What is employee misconduct?

Employee misconduct refers to any behaviour that breaches written or implied company policy or guidelines and puts the organisation and/or its employees in the way of harm.

The term is quite broad and encompasses everything from the most minor to the most serious violations and as a result, it’s important to note that addressing a case of employee misconduct is hugely dependent on its contextual circumstances. Regardless, resolving any misconduct as quickly as possible, before it has the opportunity to result in greater consequences, is in the best interest of all employers.

When it comes to addressing unethical or unprofessional behaviour, many cases can be handled through internal disciplinary action such as a requirement to participate in additional training. However, more serious cases, such as those that involve illegal actions or those that cause grave harm to another person, may call for suspensions, terminations or even lawsuits.

To make sure that the route you choose when resolving each case is just and fair, you will have to understand all possible information available about the employee misconduct as the decisions you ultimately make will communicate the values and aims that the organisation cares for most.

General misconduct vs. gross misconduct

Cases of employee misconduct can be separated into two different categories – general or gross misconduct. The former refers to behaviour or actions, whilst testing the boundaries of company policies or guidelines, are not typically egregious or intentional acts of malice.

For example, issues surrounding tardiness, inappropriate comments or insubordination would usually fall within the bounds of general misconduct. Any harm caused is usually rectifiable or limited in its impact and the cases can usually be resolved with disciplinary procedures such as verbal or written warnings, additional training and performance improvement plans.

On the other hand, gross misconduct refers to actions of grave consequence that are often illegal in nature, and call for stronger methods of resolution such as the termination of an employee’s contract.

Examples of common cases of gross misconduct involve employee fraud, theft, drug abuse, discrimination and harassment. It’s important to note that whilst these examples are common, they do not necessarily equate to gross misconduct as this is heavily dependent on the contextual circumstances of each incident.

An employer has to carry the ‘burden of proof’ to showcase that there are reasonable grounds upon which any consequences were imparted upon the employee. For this reason, it’s helpful to retain as much evidence as possible about the misconduct and its aftermath so that any resolution can be defended if objections to it arise.

For example, suppose a disciplinary decision results in a workplace suspension. In that case, all the decision-making processes and relevant company policies taken into consideration by the decision-making authority should be accurately recorded and also explained to the employee.

Examples of employee misconduct in the workplace

Professional misconduct can take many forms. Some of the main types of workplace misconduct are:

1. Breach of confidentiality

An employee typically has both a written and implied duty to withhold and protect confidential company information from all those that do not have the relevant authority to be privy to it. Choosing to breach this trust is an act of employee misconduct that can result in dire consequences for the organisation. Examples include copying and storing confidential company data, sharing confidential information about old workplaces with new employers or misusing client information for personal reasons.

2. Failure to meet work expectations

Failing to complete duties (that are reasonable and fall within your role description) set out for you by your manager or other relevant authority, on an intentional and repeated basis can serve as a major act of employee misconduct. Without valid reasons for the objection, employees who go down this path can become very difficult to work with, not only for managers but also co-workers. Failing to meet work expectations can also take on other forms such as being repeatedly late to work or meetings or having an unprofessional demeanour when interacting with colleagues, clients or customers.

3. Abuse of power

Due to the way corporate hierarchy functions, the power imbalance between certain employees can create opportunities for misconduct to occur. Employees that utilise their position of authority for purposes that are irrelevant to their intended function not only breach their contractual obligations but also risk serious harm to their employees and the broader company culture. This form of employee misconduct can take form in many different ways, including:

  • Unfair work allocations to employees
  • Attempting inappropriate contact
  • Requesting employees to complete personal errands
  • Communicating in an unprofessional manner (yelling, threatening, swearing etc.)

Abuse of power can induce consequences such as reduced productivity, an increase in turnover/absence rates, more employee complaints and a general decrease in loyalty and trust towards the organisation. It can also make the company more vulnerable to legal consequences such as lawsuits and damage its reputation in the long term.

4. Harassment and discrimination

Workplace discrimination and harassment are forms of employee misconduct that occur when an individual is mistreated due to certain protected characteristics such as race, gender and sexuality etc. All employers have a duty to prevent this form of employee misconduct from growing within their workplace and ensure that all workers are treated with respect. 

Failure to do so can result in the development of a hostile work environment and may breach workplace discrimination laws that exist to protect employees. All complaints regarding any discrimination and/or harassment should be looked into and addressed adequately, not only to resolve the issue as efficiently and quickly as possible but to establish to all employees how seriously the company takes such matters. This will help encourage employees who may be afraid to speak up whilst also deterring those who may engage in such behaviour.

5. Theft or fraud

Employee theft or fraud can range in severity from being as minor as taking home office supplies or as egregious as embezzling money from company accounts. This type of employee misconduct can have serious financial ramifications for the company so it is essential that all individuals who have authority to work with the company’s finances are trained adequately and trusted with their roles.  Types of employee theft and/or fraud include cases of stealing cash or inventory, manipulating payrolls, selling company data for financial gain or using company money to fund personal expenses. 

Spotting employee misconduct at your workplace

Keeping an active eye out for employee misconduct and implementing measures to prevent its occurrence can really help mitigate any potential consequences to all involved parties and the company. There are many methods that you can employ to achieve this and your decision will depend on the needs of your workplace, including regular training, having clear policies, focus groups and an efficient reporting system.

Furthermore, it’s important to establish trust between employees and the company – all workers should be aware that misconduct won’t be tolerated no matter what position they are in and that they can be assured they will face no harm in opening up about their experiences. 

Employers are in leadership positions, and your stance will influence the company’s ability to weather any cases of misconduct effectively and continue operating at the same standard consistently. Be transparent with your employees about how they can confidentially report harassment or discrimination. If possible, set up an anonymous reporting form – talk to Polonious if you’d like to know how. Growing your human resources department allows you to develop the right policies for your business, supervise employee behaviour and lead more effectively.

Managing employee misconduct is one of the key aspects of an employer’s role and the chosen approach to it will shape the company and employee culture within the workplace. Employers cannot constantly monitor or control the actions of their employees, however, there are methods and practices they can employ to minimise its impact. Remaining aware of how employee misconduct operates and takes form is an important first step towards this direction.