standards of behavior for effective communication

For massage therapists who manage employees—whether in private practice, a spa or massage clinic—incorporating Standards of Behavior provides a blueprint for staff that helps meet clients’ expectations for service and care. This excerpt from Taking Conversations from Difficult to Doable: 3 Models to Master Tough Conversations explains how such standards can improve communication in the workplace.


Setting Standards

Standards of Behavior are a set of official guidelines meant to govern employees’ actions, speech, attitudes and more. How do Standards of Behavior differ from typical organizational policies and Codes of Conduct? Instead of being phrased in terms of corporate goals, desired outcomes, and general dos and don’ts, standards describe specific desired behaviors.

They can cover any and all aspects of your workplace: from interactions with [clients] to phone etiquette to good manners (knocking on doors) to positive attitude markers (smiling or saying thank you).

In other words, Standards of Behavior tend to be quite detailed and personalized. They are often created by the employees and not handed down from the C-suite. (That said, standards can and should still support your organization’s overarching, long-term goals.)


A Sampling of Standards

Here are just a few examples of standards used at [various health care organizations]. (As you’ll see, there isn’t a set format for standards. Some resemble policies; others read like personal pledges.):

  • Maintain a high level of competency and the credentials required to provide the highest level of care possible.
  • I will be the “voice with a smile” in person, on the phone, via email communication.
  • Never interrupt a presentation, demonstrate respect to all speakers, regardless of situation.
  • When attending a presentation … be on time coming back from breaks and lunch and do not hold sidebar communications. Give the speaker the same respect you would want given to you if the roles were reversed.
  • I will explain the expected duration of procedures, visits and delays to [clients].
  • Keep public areas neat and clean—if the trash needs to be emptied, empty it.
  • I will acknowledge your presence, introduce myself, and explain in a timely manner aspects related to your care.
  • I will respect cultural, religious and social backgrounds.
  • Use adult conversations to resolve issues—go directly to the coworker involved.
  • Welcome, mentor and receive new team members with energy and “What can I do for you?” spirit.
  • I will wear my ID badge where it can easily be seen.
  • Act like an owner. Treat company resources as if they were your own—spend [company] money as if it were your own and do not be frivolous or excessive.
  • When on-site at an organization, always turn off cell phone and do not use partner’s time for other business.
  • Do not embarrass or criticize partners or coworkers in the presence of others.



Support for Tough Conversations

Tough conversations are most effective—and easiest to conduct—when both people understand why the conversation was initiated, why the behavior being discussed is important, and what changes need to be made. Standards of Behavior provide a shared language that makes mutual understanding possible. They also provide a level playing field that allows all employees—not just leaders—to recognize and address behaviors that don’t align with the organization’s goals and values.

Often, you’ll be able to reference a standard in difficult conversations. For instance, “When you agreed to our organization’s Standards of Behavior, you promised to return e-mails as soon as possible, and always within 24 hours.” Because the other person is already familiar with this standard, you do not need to explain what’s wrong with not returning calls promptly, and why the behavior needs to change. Instead of a lengthy explanation or argument, your conversation is a simple reminder.

Referencing a standard is sometimes the most effective way to coach someone, particularly a low performer. An employee who is inclined to disregard what they see as a suggestion or opinion will often react differently when reminded, “You signed a pledge to adhere to our standards, and the behavior I just saw violates our standard to always greet [clients].”

Best of all, keeping Standards of Behavior front and center in your organization will infuse them into your culture over time. When everyone knows and understands your standards, and sees them consistently modeled by leaders and colleagues, these behaviors will become second nature—and the overall need for difficult conversations will be reduced.

The more specific your organization’s standards are and the better versed you are in them, the easier you’ll find it to conduct tough conversations. When you are able to identify the Standard of Behavior that has been broken, describe the impact noncompliance has, and coach the other person on what needs to change, most of the heavy lifting for the conversation has already been done. It’s important to initiate a conversation about Standards of Behavior the first time you see an infraction.


Employees’ Use of Standards

Standards of Behavior won’t be very effective in difficult conversations (and in transforming your overall culture) if they are just a poster on the wall or a paper employees signed in orientation. As I said earlier, it is vital that standards be a living, breathing part of your organization. Here are some tactics to keep standards top of mind at all times:

Most organizations introduce new employees or providers to the standards when they apply for a position or for credentialing. This way, there is absolutely no question that all employees have entered your organization with a clear understanding of the behaviors that are expected of them.

Anyone who does not feel that they can adhere to your standards should not proceed with their application. After an employee is hired, standards should be highlighted once again at orientation.

Make sure that everyone in your organization is held accountable. If some team members are allowed to ignore or flout certain standards, the organization’s entire culture will suffer. Furthermore, the standards will not be taken seriously. (Again, this is why it is so important to have the appropriate difficult conversation as soon as you observe a violation.)


highlight standards

Highlight Your Standards of Behavior

Choose one standard to highlight each month. For instance, you might: have leaders describe what the standard means to them; talk about the why behind each standard at departmental meetings; or discuss the standard at huddles and ask team members to share stories of what that standard looks like in their daily work.

Have a challenge, activity or other event based around the monthly standard to make it fun. For example, if the featured standard is about the dress code, hold a fashion show to demonstrate what is and isn’t appropriate … Regularly reward and recognize employees who are role modeling the standards.

Incorporate standards into each staff member’s annual evaluation. You might even consider evaluating the employee based on how well they live out each of the standards. Simply list your organization’s standards and place a yes/no option next to each. If an employee is living and role modeling a particular standard, circle “yes.” If not, circle “no” and put that person on a disciplinary, performance or coaching plan.

A continued pattern of “noes” signals a low performer who should be moved out of the organization. It’s unacceptable for someone to habitually fail to comply with the organizational standards and continue their employment.

Post your standards publicly where visitors, [clients] and customers can see them. Employees will be even more motivated to consistently be on their “best behavior” when they know that [clients] will be aware of noncompliance—and that a [client’s] complaint could spark a difficult conversation.

From Taking Conversations from Difficult to Doable: 3 Models to Master Tough Conversations, by Lynne Cunningham. Copyright © 2015 Studer Group LLC. Reprinted by permission of Fire Starter Publishing.


About the Author

Lynne Cunningham is an internationally renowned speaker, coach and author. A leader in health care communication, she has more than four decades in the industry. She works with hospitals, health systems and medical groups all over the country to define, measure and evaluate the perception of quality among patients, employees, physicians and the community. She has written several books and many journal articles on topics like patient satisfaction and physician partnership.