At a recent networking event I was standing near a couple of younger women who were deep in a conversation about challenges they were facing at work. After introducing ourselves I learned that they both work in large organizations, each in a position of power.

One woman was talking about a staff member who seemed to have no idea as to what constituted appropriate workplace behaviour. Apparently this is a common problem because the other woman seemed to be experiencing a lot of the same issues at her workplace.

A plethora of “whys” and “shoulds” peppered the conversation. “Why would she behave like that? She should know that you can’t say something like that…Why doesn’t she know that you can’t do something like that…She should know that you can’t act like that…”

Their frustration with these situations was evident. As the exchange continued I noticed that they became both empowered and comforted by their shared sense of the issue, inaccurately framed as a problem with an individual employee rather than the possible symptom of a larger or systemic issue.

I have encountered this countless times in my consulting work. Employees engage in inappropriate behaviour, they tell off colour jokes, they throw paper clips at each other’s heads, they send rude emails, they raise their voices or use profanity, they dress provocatively, they have sexual relations in the office. The list goes on and on. Leaders shake their heads and wonder how this is happening, given that “they should know better.”

As I walked away from the conversation I thought to myself that the answer to all those why questions is very simple. The reason that the employee does not know what is or is not appropriate in her workplace is because no one has told her. In all likelihood neither of their workplaces has spent much time thinking about why that old expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has stuck around for as long as it has.

A great deal of my time is spent dealing with problematic disrespectful behaviour in the workplace, the vast majority of which is absolutely preventable. One of the reasons it continues to occur is because many workplace leaders, like those two women I overheard, share some very flawed assumptions about behavioural norms in our contemporary, diverse society.

The assumption is that such norms exist. The assumption is that there is a common understanding of what appropriate, respectful and professional workplace behaviour looks like and that the people they are hiring to work for them possess this knowledge.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. There are no widely accepted norms. There is no common understanding. Years ago I was conducting focus groups with employees in a department that was having some major problems with disrespect. As we were wrapping up the subject of dress codes came up. One young woman said “ We have a casual dress code. It works fine.” Then she proceeded to get up and as she was walking out I saw the details of the tattoo she had on her lower back clearly visible in the space between her shirt and the top of her low rise jeans.

Appropriate for the street? Maybe. In an office? No, particularly if you want to avoid costly and disruptive problems like sexual harassment. That workplace might have a dress code, however, it was obvious to me that employee had no idea how she “should” be dressing at work.

As I reflected on what I heard that evening I wondered what, if any, action either of those women might take as a result of their conversation. In my experience, one flawed assumption often leads to another. If we assume that an employee should know better, we assume that the employee is to blame for what is going on. The employee and their problematic or inappropriate behaviour become one and the same. We see the person as the problem; a flawed and potentially costly perspective which encourages us to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the inappropriate behaviour we are encountering in others.

Here’s a hot tip for you. If you are in a position of power in a workplace, you are responsible. And as Spiderman’s uncle said as he lay dying, with great power comes great responsibility. While I appreciate that life would be a whole lot easier for many workplace leaders if there was a common societal understanding of how to behave respectfully and professionally, given that there isn’t, adopting an “ounce of prevention” approach will ensure that one is created for the employees in your workplace.

The first step is to figure out what it is that you think that employees “should” know about how to conduct themselves appropriately, respectfully and professionally in your workplace. The fact that it is a workplace must be the anchor to any discussions. There must be a distinction between what people do or say at work, compared to what they might do or say outside of work. That distinction should frame the discussion.

When you have figured out what you think employees should know, don’t simply develop a policy and stick it in your employee handbook. By all means develop policies, but make sure that those policies serve as a springboard to widespread and ongoing discussions and dialogue with all employees. Start talking about what respectful and professional behaviour looks like. Rather than create a set of rules and impose them, demonstrate respect by involving employees with curiosity and questioning.

Structure these conversations so that all employees understand what it is that they “should” know about behavioural expectations in your workplace. Make sure that those conversations are incorporated into your hiring and onboarding practices. Make sure that workplace leaders and those they lead are supported, empowered and held accountable to take responsibility to speak up when they encounter behaviour that does not reflect the corporate standard.

An” ounce of prevention” summarizes the dominant theme in Road to Respect. If you want to eliminate the costly and toxic outcomes of workplace disrespect, you must be proactive. You have to create a workplace culture where respectful norms of behaviour are clearly defined, communicated, understood and demonstrated by everyone. Applying that old adage will ensure that your business reaps “a pound of cure” with ongoing, sustainable business success.