Describing an employee as aggressive can be tricky. We want
the sales person to be very aggressive in closing deals while the customer
service representative should check aggressive tendencies at the door. But
maybe the service professional needs to be aggressive when they are seeking a
solution to a problem.
This is one of those descriptive words that is important but
can be mushy when applied to the people and has landed employers in hot water.
The same word describes desirable and undesirable behaviors. Webster defines it
as, “marked by combative readiness” and “marked by obtrusive energy.” (I had to look up obtrusive and learned that
it means, “forward in manner or conduct,” “undesirably prominent.”) There are
lots of jobs where obtrusive energy won’t help the outcome. On the positive side,
there are frequent occasions where aggressive defined as, “marked by driving
forceful energy or initiative” would be a huge benefit, particularly in a tough
Stereotypes about this behavior abound and this is where
employers have been caught in claims of discrimination. Female employees have
been labeled too aggressive, while the same approach is rewarded with
promotions for men. If it doesn’t sound like something you have heard or seen
in the workplace think back to recent political campaigns.
Is this a case of another behavioral term that needs to be
removed from your management vocabulary? No need to rush and place aggressive
on the list of banned workplace words. But when you do use it, as a negative or
positive, quantify or qualify the term with measurable back up. “Fred missed
his quota by 32% during the last quarter, he was not aggressive in identifying
new clients.” “Shelly was too aggressive
in screening every phone call when company policy clearly states that all
callers with complaints should be sent directly to customer service.”
Without specifics aggressive can seem like a code word to
label people inappropriately. The mis-perception can be used against you in an employment
related claim. If the term is not clarified the employee won’t understand the
real issue and have difficulty redirecting performance. The next time you use
the term in an evaluation, disciplinary action or coaching session, make
certain any reader will understand your intent.