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6 Examples of Employee Misconduct and How to Handle Them

Workplaces are just like any other high-pressure environment: Sometimes people cross a line and do things that violate company policies, industry regulations, and even state or federal laws. Having a disciplinary action policy in place can help you minimize the most serious forms of employee misconduct and address any issues that do arise.

Let’s take a look at the most common types of employee misconduct, as well as what your options are for addressing them in a fair and even-handed manner.

What Is Employee Misconduct?

Employee misconduct ranges from minor violations of company policy that contribute to an unpleasant work environment to serious acts of misconduct that harm a company’s reputation or threaten the health and safety of co-workers. Most cases of employee misconduct fall into one of two broad categories.

General Misconduct

General or simple misconduct refers to situations in which an employee’s behavior goes against company policy, but isn’t grounds for immediate termination. This could include things like showing up late to work or smoking cigarettes on company property.

In most cases, general misconduct can be addressed with a verbal or written warning, and doesn’t require escalation. But if the employee continues to engage in the same behavior over time, you can consider taking more serious disciplinary action.

Gross Misconduct

Gross misconduct refers to employee conduct that seriously violates workplace policies, industry regulations, or state or federal law. Examples of gross misconduct include theft, property damage, threats of violence, and sexual harassment.

Some cases of workplace misconduct may be grounds for immediate dismissal or legal action, while others may trigger a workplace investigation to find out what happened. A gross misconduct violation may be the result of intentional behavior or negligence, and a formal misconduct investigation can help to determine what really went on.

6 Examples of Employee Misconduct

Employee misconduct: employee using his phone

The most common types of employee misconduct can vary from one organization to the next. Some examples of misconduct rise to the level of criminal or illegal behavior in any industry, while others will depend on the guidelines in your code of conduct or employee handbook. Here are six of the most common types of employee misconduct.

Offensive Behavior

Offensive behavior includes a wide range of unwanted behaviors, from rude comments and jokes to targeted abuse and harassment. This type of behavior can be physical or verbal, and can even take place online, such as posting an insensitive meme or using offensive language in an email.

Offensive behavior isn’t necessarily an existential threat to an organization, but it can harm employee morale and contribute to a hostile work culture over time.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a type of workplace misconduct that employers are required to protect against by law. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

Some companies may go so far as to prohibit interoffice relationships entirely, while others allow them as long as they’re disclosed to the human resources team.


Insubordination involves an employee’s refusal to perform their job responsibilities or follow instructions. In some cases, it may involve direct conflict with their manager or supervisor, while in other cases, it means doing something behind their back.

Minor cases can usually be handled with a verbal warning, but serious cases should be escalated to HR. For example, an employee who uses equipment they aren’t qualified for could put themselves and their co-workers at risk.

Theft or Fraud

Theft or fraud is another type of employee behavior that can quickly rise to the level of gross misconduct. Cases of fraud, embezzlement, or misuse of customer funds should be reported to authorities, while other situations, such as lying on a job application or using company property for personal use, can often be handled internally.

Other types of fraud include FMLA abuse, which is when an employee makes a leave of absence request under the Family and Medical Leave Act that they aren't entitled to.

Confidentiality Breach

A confidentiality breach occurs when an employee intentionally or accidentally exposes confidential information, such as proprietary information or client data. A minor breach may involve posting about an upcoming project launch on social media, while a more serious breach could include unauthorized access to a customer database.

Safety Violations

Safety violations may require disciplinary action if an employee repeatedly fails to follow safety protocols or otherwise threatens workplace safety. This could include wearing the wrong protective gear, operating machinery in an unsafe manner, or showing up to work intoxicated. Some safety incidents may require a formal workplace investigation.

5 Best Practices for Addressing Employee Misconduct 

The best way to handle misconduct in the workplace will depend on your disciplinary policy, the severity of the violation, and whether or not it’s happened before. Here are five best practices for handling employee misconduct, conducting investigations, and preventing unwanted behavior from happening in the first place.

1. Create a Code of Conduct

Having a clear code of conduct in your employee handbook serves two purposes. First, it ensures that all employees know what’s expected of them under company policy and what types of behaviors are considered employee misconduct. Second, it allows you to apply your policies fairly and consistently and avoid accusations of bias or favoritism.

Be sure to highlight your code of conduct in the onboarding process and have all new employees sign an employment agreement that confirms they’ve read it.

2. Follow Clear Disciplinary Procedures

Your employee disciplinary process should follow a consistent series of steps. In cases of gross misconduct, you can skip one or more steps and go directly to suspension or termination. In less serious cases, the goal is to let the employee know what they did wrong and give them an opportunity to correct it.

Start with a verbal warning, followed by a written warning on the second offense. Then, escalate the matter to your HR team, and consider termination or suspension. At each step, use a disciplinary action form template to record details about the incident.

3. Offer a Performance Improvement Plan

Cases of dress code violations, absenteeism, and other performance issues can often be addressed with a performance improvement plan instead of disciplinary action. Take this approach when an employee’s performance doesn’t meet company standards, but doesn’t rise to the level of serious misconduct. 

If an employee is experiencing personal issues or mental health issues, ask what you can do to help. They may even be eligible for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or a leave of absence under FMLA for mental health.

4. Conduct an Internal Investigation

Claims of abuse, sexual harassment, or illegal or criminal behavior may require you to conduct an incident investigation to determine if the allegations are accurate and what type of follow-up action is required. You may need to collect evidence, such as emails and CCTV footage, and interview co-workers who were present for the incident.

Use a cloud-based incident management platform like Pulpstream to store evidence securely and protect the confidentiality of those involved in the investigation.

5. Make a Report to Authorities

Some cases of workplace misconduct need to be reported to local law enforcement or regulatory bodies. If an employee has engaged in fraud or theft, or been involved in a physical altercation, consider filing a police report and taking legal action.

For safety violations that result in a work injury, you’ll need to report the injury to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within 24 hours.

Simplify the Employee Misconduct Process With Pulpstream

Employees working at an office

Employee misconduct can range from minor workplace incidents to serious violations of company policy. Either way, the employee disciplinary process can be complicated. You can streamline it with a clear code of conduct and standardized disciplinary policies.

Pulpstream is a cloud-based HR management platform that can handle everything from performance improvement plans to workplace investigations. Use it to standardize and automate HR processes, store your data securely in the cloud, and ensure compliance with HIPAA, OSHA, FMLA, the ADA, and other employment regulations.

Plus, our no-code interface means you don’t even have to know how to code in order to use it. Request a demo today to learn more!