Several human resources managers I work with sometimes refer to employees as their “children” and joke that at times (particularly when dealing with their “problem children”) they feel more like grade school teachers than HR managers. A recent study reaffirms the inherent truth in this analogy. 

Childish behavior is not confined to elementary school playgrounds, but is prevalent in today’s workplace, according to a new survey by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder. Over 75 percent of employees report that they have witnessed some type of childish behavior among colleagues in the workplace. Over half of those surveyed (55%) report whining by colleagues. (The only thing surprising here is that the number is not higher.) Just under half (46%) have witnessed co-workers pouting when something didn’t go their way. (That seems about right.) But what surprised me are the high rates of truly juvenile behavior, such as: making a face behind someone’s back (35%); forming a clique (32%); starting a rumor about a co-worker (30%); storming out of the room (29%); throwing a temper tantrum (27%); and refusing to share resources with others (23%). No wonder HR managers sometimes feel like elementary school teachers!

So how big is the problem? Dale Carnegie taught that when dealing with people, you need to remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion. When humans are involved, emotions can trigger illogical, even childish, behavior. When such behavior is demeaning or distracting to others, it is unquestionably inappropriate. Childish behavior is bad for business. It’s disruptive, destroys morale, and hurts productivity. It also creates legal headaches. This is particularly true when it manifests itself as harassment, bullying, or cliquishness.

So what to do? Hopefully you already have a lawyer-vetted non-harassment policy in place and provide annual harassment training. (That should be a given.) Consider expanding this training to include reminders about basic civility.

Beyond that, some progressive employers are now providing simple assertiveness training to teach employees appropriate strategies for identifying and acting on their desires and needs while remaining respectful to others. If employees are empowered with the ability to act on their concerns assertively (rather than aggressively, passively, or, worst of all, passive-aggressively), they will feel better about themselves and be less likely to say and do things that make the people around them feel bad.

Team building and social events may also help promote a more-respectful work environment. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously recognized, one of the reasons people fail to get along is because they don’t know each other and don’t take time to communicate with each other.

Of course, HR vigilance is important, too. Get out into the work environment on a regular basis so you know the people and the pulse of the workplace. And when instances of bad behavior come to your attention, nip them in the bud by promptly investigating and taking appropriate remedial action.

Dealing with childish behavior in the workplace brings to mind Robert Fulghum’s now-classic 1990 essay, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulghum theorized that the essential things we need to know about how to live and what to do we learned in kindergarten, not in graduate school. Things like: 

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • When you go out into the world, hold hands and stick together.
  • Remember to look. 

These things, which hold “true and clear and firm,” can be extrapolated into adult terms and applied to our family and work. 

Why is something that seems so simple so difficult for so many people?