Calling Out Bad Behaviour At Work Is The Kind Of Stuff That Makes A Leader

Calling Out Bad Behavior At Work Is The Kind Of Stuff That Makes A Leader

By Miriam Grobman

Many leaders find it difficult to give direct feedback without alienating the other person, especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as calling out bad behaviour.

Part of being a leader, however, means taking action in those challenging moments.

It can be hard to find the right words because you don’t know how they will react. The persons at stake may indeed not take the feedback well because you are calling out something they may not be willing to confront within themselves.

Their ego will be bruised.

They may act out.

It can be scary to express your own boundaries or speak on the behalf of others.

Yet, it’s really important to call out the behavior of a bully unless you want them to keep treating you or others this way.

You should know that not saying anything validates their behaviour and tells them that you accept to be treated this way. If they can’t respect this, it’s on them and not on you.

I have been teaching people to give constructive feedback for a while when something happened that made me step back and think about how I’d apply my own advice.

As I was concluding a module of my course, a participant made dismissive comments which he topped off with a sexist joke. It was disrespectful towards me, the other women in the class, and the program’s spirit overall.

After class, I was fuming. “How dare he?” I thought to myself. I was also torn between my indignation and my standard approach of “let’s forget about this and move on.”

I then realised that this was a great opportunity to turn a bad situation into a teaching moment for myself and this student (regardless of whether he was willing to learn or not).

I decided to send him a detailed e-mail, identifying specific (mis)behaviors and explaining how they affected not only others but also his own reputation.

I share with you my note here, edited to remove any identifying information. I added explanations for each section so you could use this as a template for your own feedback conversations.

Hi <name>,

[Why I am writing] I wanted to give you some feedback about our interaction yesterday,

[What is in it for him] especially since you previously expressed interest in soft skills training and recognized their importance.

[What I expect] Hope you can leverage it to improve your learning throughout the program.

[Summary of the inappropriate situation or aka calling out the misbehavior] You made some comments during the session that were distracting others and were not demonstrating your own potential and competence.


You made a joke about a quote I shared with the class. This joke was boxing women into an unflattering stereotype. You then made it personal by trying to get me to admit that it applied to my own life as well.

[Consequences] I felt uncomfortable, and I was also frustrated because it confused the message and distracted from the point I was trying to make about managing emotions in business. I tried to explain my point to you but you ignored it and kept insisting on this argument.

[Suggested alternative behavior] In the future, I would appreciate it if you tried to evaluate the merit of a joke that puts a certain group in a negative light. It makes the other side uncomfortable and it also makes you look bad. I assume that you do do value women and their contributions but it was not the image created at the moment.

Instead of making that comment, you could have said: “This quote makes me reflect on the fact that we always remember when someone does something bad to us…”

Even better would have been to think about how this quote relates to the training and your daily work: i.e. “I have to be careful about how I manage relationships with clients and if something bad happens to make sure I address it with a lot of care.” Or: “It’s difficult to manage relationships and recover from a negative experience so we better prepare very well before we enter the room to discuss something with a client.” etc etc.

[Summary and next steps]

I hope this feedback can be useful to your professional development. Let me know if you’d like any other resources about active listening. I do recommend reading the article I sent to the group after yesterday’s session.


I did not receive a reply but he this student has not made any more inappropriate comments until the rest of the course. Partial win?


What about you? How have you handled misbehaving or bullying at work?Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website

Miriam Grobman is an international management expert who helps Fortune 500 and start-up leaders understand human behaviour.

This article first appeared on the Forbes website.

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