Employees who achieve fantastic results at a cost to those around them tend to have managers who let them get away with it, causing bigger problems for HR down the track, according to employment lawyer Rod Collinson.

Particularly since the introduction of the Fair Work Commission’s new anti-bullying jurisdiction last year, Collinson has observed an increasing number of workplace grievances involving employees who are outstanding performers when it comes to their results, but whose behaviour is less than acceptable.

These “rockstar” employees are often in sales or business development roles, he says. Managers whose budgets depend on their success tend to make excuses for them, for example: “so-and-so’s a diva”, “they’re just eccentric”, “it’s a high-pressure role”.

Managers also make excuses because they’re worried about how the employee might react to criticism.

“Rockstars are always ready to blame others and not take responsibility,” says Collinson, an employment law specialist at Page Seager. “They’re very focused on looking good and achieving their individual goals; they’re wired around what’s best for them, but not necessarily what the organisation needs; and they tend to have the results-at-all-costs attitude.

“These are things that can make people very successful, because it gives them an edge over others, but those same traits can also cause a lot of difficulty internally, where people don’t want to work with them because they’re being ‘squashed’ by them,” he says.

Performance discussions, in theory, provide managers with an opportunity to raise behavioural issues, but in practice they often focus on an employee’s technical work or sales results, which rockstars will “smash out of the park”.

But avoiding the issue only creates a bigger one – which HR ends up having to deal with, Collinson warns.

“What often happens, from what I’ve seen, is because the little performance issues aren’t dealt with – the regular, frequent addressing of issues – they build and build and build until eventually an employee or group of people make a serious bullying claim,” he says.

The manager then “handballs the problem to HR”, investigators are called in, and an expensive, time-consuming process – that could have been avoided – begins.

Regular catch-ups the answer

The key to addressing problematic behaviour from high performers is to make casual performance discussions that address minor issues an “easy habit” for managers, Collinson says.

Something as simple as a regular, one-on-one catch-up might be all that’s needed, provided it is regular, he says.

“The reason why one-on-ones are so important is that having them locked away as a regular catch-up [provides] a forum where positive and negative feedback can be given, and pinches can be dealt with before they become crunches.”

Without regular, preferably weekly, catch-ups, the minute a manager says “hey, I’d like to have a chat to you about something”, it will escalate, Collinson says.

Suddenly the rockstar is saying, “what do you want to chat about? Let’s talk about it now,” and when the manager says “no”, the employee demands a written agenda and a support person, he says.

“You can completely avoid that if there’s already a standing regular catch-up to talk about work issues, and that’s a perfect forum for giving feedback.”

These “crucial conversations” should clarify role expectations, goal expectations, or organisational expectations, Collinson says, but “with the rockstars it’s often not an issue around the role and the goal – they very much understand what they’re there to do and how to deliver results – the issue is how they go about it, and it’s in a way that doesn’t accord with organisational expectations”.

In these conversations it usually helps to begin with positive feedback: “here’s the things we want you to keep doing in the organisation; it’s what makes you successful and makes us successful” – then: “here are the actions and behaviours to change”.

Talking in terms of behaviours is key because “you can describe a behaviour – you can see it or hear it, and people can very much choose how they behave”, Collinson says.

“Rather than big arguments about performance conclusions, such as, ‘you’re a bully’ or ‘you’re railroading’, you’re actually dealing with behaviours, so you’re saying, ‘when you’re interrupting Bob during that meeting and talking over the top of him, that comes across as really unprofessional, can you change that?'”

Or a manager might raise the problem of anger by saying, “I understand you’re somebody who might get angry, and that’s just you, but what I’m asking is for you to make a different choice about how you want to behave when you get angry. There’s nothing wrong with having the emotion, but you can choose how you actually behave in response”.

If an issue is framed in terms of personality, on the other hand, an employee is more likely to get defensive and say something like, “look, that’s my personality, take it or leave it, I am what I am”, rather than agree and try to change, he says.

If the rockstar is self-aware enough to see the truth of what their manager is saying, they will adapt their behaviours, “because everyone can choose how they behave, and because they want to continue to be successful”, Collinson says.

If, however, they lack self-awareness, the problem behaviours tend to escalate.

“But then, instead of looking backwards with a formal investigation, we can look forwards and say, your behaviours are unlikely to change, they’re inappropriate, and that’s led to a breakdown of trust and confidence.

“In the last couple of years, more and more decisions in Fair Work have focused on where the trust and confidence has broken down in an employment relationship, so it’s being able to tell that story and establish that rather than look backwards trying to elevate certain behaviours into serious misconduct,” he says.

Don’t raise every issue, every time

If there are multiple issues on the boil, managers should use their judgement to decide what to raise, and when.

“You don’t have to raise every single issue every time it comes up – you can let a couple go and then decide when you want to raise something,” Collinson says.

The key is to address “instances of actual behaviours, fairly close after they’ve occurred” to keep things casual and non-confrontational.

“Often with the rockstar the issue is… how they interact with other people – not so much the substance of what they’ve said not being right, but how they’ve expressed it, and also how they go about their work process, so their ability to work cooperatively and work respectfully.”

It’s up to HR to educate managers to understand that the behaviour of their direct reports is their responsibility, and to be viewing behavioural issues as performance issues that must be addressed, he says.

Once managers are having regular catch-ups and crucial conversations with their people, the number of issues that would have otherwise escalated to bullying complaints and disciplinary matters for HR to deal with will decrease, Collinson says.