Dealing with issues of staff conduct

Written by: Sonia Gill | Published:
Image: iStock

There are times as a manager or school leader when the behaviour of a colleague needs to be addressed. Sonia Gill offers some advice on approaching these sensitive conversations professionally

As teachers we are masters of talking to children about their behaviour, most do it every day in some way – it might be how wonderfully they are behaving or when their behaviour is not appropriate.

But think about having those same conversations with adults. Most people get a little paler at this thought and that’s understandable.

Why is talking to adults about their behaviour so much scarier and harder than talking to children? In my experience the main reasons are:

  • We don’t want to upset the other person or be upset ourselves, which is very understandable especially if we think they might get angry or emotional.
  • Giving someone a difficult message makes most of us feel anxious and I don’t think any of us welcome that emotion.
  • We can feel like the other person “should just know better”.
  • We can also feel that “it is just the way they are”, their personality, or that it is simply not our place to say.
  • You have not been shown how to deliver these messages well. The chances are you have been really well trained, as well as clocking up a lot of experience, in dealing with pupil behaviour – but most school leaders have not had a comparable amount of training to tackle adult behaviour.

Can’t I just avoid it?

You can. But like most things this has consequences. And not tackling adult behaviour can have some pretty serious consequences.

It damages the culture of your school. If someone is allowed to “get away” with a behaviour (being late, being rude) and others aren’t, this sends out messages to the rest of your team. A bit like if a student is allowed to “get away” with certain behaviour, other students can feel this isn’t fair and they could well be right.

It reflects poorly on your leadership if you are not willing to tackle these issues or don’t tackle them well.

Not tackling the issue is as good as saying “please carry on doing that, it’s totally fine”, which means that until you tackle it, it will continue to exist or get even worse. And you could be making a rod for your own back because it is harder to speak out about a behaviour that has been allowed to continue than to tackle it early.

So you can avoid it, but there are consequences and in my experience the ability to have these difficult conversations are a key factor in high performing teams (and outstanding schools).

My acid test for if you should speak to the adult about behaviour or not is: if it was a child would you have the conversation? If the answer is yes then it should be the case for adults as well.

What about the law?

In terms of the law, behaviour is called conduct, and the whole first page of the Teachers’ Standards is about conduct. You need to be as considered, thoughtful and careful in these conversations as you are about conversations on performance, but you can legally have these conversations.

Evidence

When you are talking about behaviour evidence is crucial. It is often a lot easier to evidence performance issues than someone “being brusque”, “creating an atmosphere”, or even giving the impression they don’t want to be at the school.

But the fact is, if you have that impression and if others have noticed it as well, then they have probably done something to create it. This is where you need to think carefully about what the evidence is. If you are going to talk to them about this, it really helps to have specific examples.

If someone creates a negative atmosphere what is it they are doing? Think of times you have felt that way: perhaps in assembly they sit with their arms folded and a particular (unhelpful) expression on their face, or in staff meetings they give the impression that they are not interested, perhaps they sigh, look out the window or keep checking their phone.

No matter how ambiguous or hard to define the conduct issue, you should always try to define what the evidence is – this will help you to tackle the issue in a kind, yet purposeful way.

Beware of a classic ‘get out’ clause

I think people get caught out with conduct because often the person hasn’t actually said anything wrong and I hear words to the effect of “But I/they didn’t say anything” or “But I/they said...”

The fact is what we say is only part of the message and how we say it is just as important. So when a member of staff turns and walks away when another member of staff tries to talk them – this is rude and the fact they have done it several times indicates it wasn’t an accident.

Nothing said but the behaviour speaks volumes. So be careful of falling into the “but they didn’t say anything” trap or being pushed into it by someone else.

Being cocky!

Could you tell someone they are cocky? I did! When I worked in business, I was developing some aspiring managers, and one of them was a great guy with lots of potential, however he was cocky.
Now I’ll admit, this was some pretty crunchy feedback to be giving him, and I thought carefully about using this word with him, but I wanted him to do well and knew he needed to understand what was holding him back.

I told him I thought he often behaved in a cocky way and gave him three very specific examples of what had made me think that.

He confessed to me that he had been given this kind of feedback in the past but had never understood it until now – he could clearly see what the issue was and we had a really constructive and actually light-hearted conversation about it

You can talk about behaviour

You can tackle issues of conduct and the first page of any code of conduct that you have within your school should give a clear picture of what you expect from your staff.

If people are not behaving as you expect, it is best to raise it with them as soon as possible and make sure you have clear examples of what makes you think this way. If it feels scary, that is a good thing, because it shows that you are human and you care.

  • Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, specialising in supporting headteachers and school leaders.

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