Managing professionalism in the workforce

Managing professionalism in the workforce

Most people will not knowingly commit a fraud or infringe formal company policy

All employers are conscious of the potential for fraud in the workforce, and employ the kinds of checks and balances that will protect them. In contrast, managers are often not sure how to react when inappropriate anti-social or marginally dishonest employee behaviour comes to light within their team. Such situations are always difficult to address, especially where the staff member may be long-serving, or the behaviour is “borderline” or hard to quantify.

What problems are most likely to arise in the IT department?

Woodbine recently conducted an informal poll of a select number of clients to identify the most frequently occurring problem behaviours amongst employees. The results indicate that these are:

• Breaches of intellectual property/confidentiality standards.

• Internet abuse.

• Conducting private business on company time.

Intellectual property/confidentiality breaches

Confidentiality agreements for employees are almost universal in the IT industry due to the potential for commercial loss and damage associated with the abuse of intellectual property. Small-scale software piracy also falls within this general area. Managers should review relevant policy and consequent implications with all staff from time to time.

Internet abuse

Without labouring the obvious, there is great potential for both anti-social and commercially inappropriate activity related to email systems and internet access from company premises. Unauthorised access to inappropriate material on the web (for example, sexually explicit or generally sexist material) has become a management issue due to the implications of harassment legislation.

Inappropriate material is frequently “condoned” on the basis of the humour involved. However, what is humorous to one person may be deeply offensive to another, and even incidental exposure to such material is certainly a harassment issue. Many companies use content security software to filter incoming email. However, access to internet sites is not always restricted. Again, the best defence is regular communication of standards, and periodic audits of compliance.

Conducting private enterprise

A distinction first needs to be made between personal business and commercial activity. We all occasionally have the need to organise personal business during working hours and such activities might include booking theatre tickets or phoning the hairdresser. Most managers understand and accept the need to do this on work time providing it is kept brief.

However, conducting or operating private business on company time is an entirely separate matter and can range from the trivial to the downright fraudulent. Examples might include doing work for private clients, running a business on the side or trading on the sharemarket. Each situation must be judged separately on its merits. In any form, it is not good for productivity and has the potential to cause dissension within the team. Some quite prominent pyramid-type selling schemes trade on the fact that their members are able to sell to and recruit workmates whilst they are at work. Managers should be aware of potential problems.

What should you do when confronted with a problem in one of these categories?

• Always take action. Strong managers in respectable companies manage to set a standard and must act decisively when the standard is breached.

• Involve the experts. Brief the appropriate HR people and work through their process. Request legal advice if appropriate.

• React promptly and decisively. In some cases, dismissal of the employee involved will be the most appropriate remedy. At other times, a counselling session or a formal written warning will suffice. In all cases it is critical that you act immediately.

Can you manage to minimise the incidence of abuse?

Most companies have well-developed standards and policies covering the problem areas. It is important to address these as part of the induction process for new employees. Most people will not knowingly commit a fraud or infringe formal company policy.

Ongoing communication and periodic revision of policy guidelines with all staff is important, as a preventative method and to strengthen the company position when a breach of policies is identified.

Remember that dismissing an offending employee will not create a morale problem on your team. It will make them feel as though they work for a respectable company with strong management.

Is there a pervasive problem?

Considering the size of the working population represented by Woodbine’s informal poll on the issue of employee behaviour, very few problems do occur. Many of the matters outlined in this article may never arise for the typical manager. There are, however, enough exceptions to the rule to justify periodic attention to these potentially damaging breaches of professionalism and corporate policy.

Don Smith is managing director of Woodbine Associates, specialists in IT recruitment. Smith can be contacted on ph: 0-9-363 3324, or email: For further information visit

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