People are creatures of habit and are generally resistant to change. Therefore, getting people to change the way they act or do something can be extremely difficult. Many HVAC business owners and managers who have had to break employees of bad habits can attest. While, there is no exact scientific method for modifying employee behavior, there are a few common methods industry professionals swear by.


Lisa Ziegler, human resources manager for Environmental Conditioning Systems in Mentor, Ohio, said employees’ bad habits may be best addressed during the annual review process. “Managers should be discussing strengths and areas of improvement with employees. They need to make sure employees understand it’s a requirement to do things differently going forward with a specific follow-up date. The method changes when implementing new procedures. Communication is key when new policies are put into place. It’s important to explain the policy so it’s understood as well as to put in writing via email or by posting it for all to visualize.”

Essentially, open lines of communication are required for employees to be successful, according to Wendy Clouser, human resources/safety director for The Perfection Group in Cincinnati.

“When employees have bad habits, it is best to address them immediately,” she said. “They have to understand why this is not the best way to do the task. If someone understands the policy and why it is important, they will try to follow it. If you have the attitude of just do it, then they will be reluctant to follow your direction. They have to feel their input is important and understand why. We have a very open line of communication at Perfection, and our associates appreciate how they are treated.”

Clouser added it’s important to maintain a positive work environment while modifying employee behavior. “Managers need to treat employees like they matter. When a job is done, we take the time to say thank you. It’s the little things that really go a long way. Morale is very important. Employees really want to feel appreciated and valued. If you can make this happen, then you will get a more productive workforce.” 

Paul Sammataro, president of Samm’s Heating and Air in Plano, Texas, said there can be misconceptions among employees simply due to a lack of communication.

“You have to make sure employees understand there is something not being done correctly because, sometimes, such bad habits might have been considered normal habits elsewhere,” Sammataro explained. “We’ll bring in new people and assume an experienced tech or installer might do things a certain way only to find out these individuals didn’t even understand their way of doing something was a bad habit.”


A mistake many managers make is to immediately assume that employees who are not performing well are doing so because they don’t care, are just lazy, or have some other undesirable personal trait – which isn’t necessarily true, noted Frank Besednjak, president and CEO, Training Source Inc.

“What managers are doing is something called ‘fundamental attribution,’ where they’re looking at a person and immediately placing blame on that person rather than trying to figure out if it’s an environmental or communication factor, like something they don’t understand, a training related issue, or maybe information was miscommunicated. So they have to determine the root cause of the problem before jumping to conclusions about the person.”

Besednjak said a manager may be able to get to the root cause by watching the employee, discussing it, pointing out the specific issue, offering up a solution, and giving him or her a chance to fix it.

If the employee continues the same behavior, then it’s time to begin an advanced performance improvement plan to resolve the deficiencies. This begins with a private meeting or counseling session. Besednjak also said there are five main reasons employees may not be performing well: personal issues, training is required, they don’t understand your rules or processes, they can’t do it (lack of ability and will never be able to do it), and they don’t care about it.

“During the counseling session, the objective is to determine the root cause of the issue. It has to be done through a series of questions directed at the employee to make sure they understand the deficiency, communicate it to you, come up with a solution that you both agree with, and determine a schedule of events to follow, should the performance issue improve or not improve. This should not be a one-way chewing session where the manager is telling the employee what they’re doing wrong. Instead, the manager needs to be asking the employee what they think is wrong and why he or she is sitting here. So the manager should simply ask, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ And the employee should say “yes,” obviously, because you’ve already discussed the matter. Then the manager needs to ask why they think this is happening, and then let the employee talk. Then, they ask, ‘What do you think should happen, how should this problem be handled?’

“It’s the employee’s problem; it’s not the manager’s issue, so it has to be put back on that person to fix it. Let them come up with a possible solution. If it requires someone else’s help or training, you will have to decide if it is feasible for the company to provide that and discuss the options right there.” Besednjak continued. “So the manager asks a series of questions and puts the problem on the employee to fix. The next questions are, ‘How long do you think this will take to fix if we agree on the solution?’ and ‘What do you think should happen if you fail to change your behavior or resolve this issue?’ Now the employee is put in the position of deciding what his penalty is for not following the rules or improving. One of two things will happen: They will get better, or they will quit. That’s how it usually works. This is not something the manager can fix; that individual employee has to fix the problem. But they have to understand what is expected of them and know specifically what you want done. You have to let them think through that entire process of what they’re doing wrong so they can come up with the solution versus just yelling at them or telling them they’re not performing well.”

It’s important to show employees specifically what needs to be done, Besednjak added. “It’s like if I’m working on a car – and I don’t know anything about cars – and somebody starts yelling at me because I’m touching the wrong thing or checking the wrong part. Well, a lot of times, you discourage potentially great employees or perhaps lose them because they haven’t been given enough guidelines and rules to do their jobs the way you want, so they just go about what they think is right until someone corrects them.”


It’s important for managers to understand that everyone learns differently at different paces, Ziegler acknowledged. “So, a few mistakes managers can make include not giving employees strategies or ideas to assist in the change, not committing to follow-up with employees while the change is in process to ensure the change becomes a habit, and not encouraging the change and acknowledging that change is difficult.”

Managers also commonly fail to listen to employees’ concerns, Clouser said. “The old-school mindset of ‘it’s my way or the highway’ no longer works. It’s too hard to find employees and even harder to find employees who have the skills needed to do the job.”

Sammataro agreed that listening to employees is key for managers.

“Sometimes, I tend to know where conversations are going, and if something’s frustrating me, I interrupt. I don’t allow the person to say what he or she has to say,” he said. “So listening, even though you might dislike or disagree with what they have to say, is the best thing managers can do, especially for those who are trying to break bad habits. There is usually a reason behind their actions. They might think what they’re doing is fine. If you don’t hear the whole thing, you may not realize the root of how to solve the problem you’re trying to solve.”


What happens if a manager has repeatedly discussed a problem, and the employee has yet to change his or her behavior? According to Clouser, the company handbook should be adhered to.

“We have a three-strike process,” she explained. “If it’s not a serious infraction, like theft or a safety violation, then the manager should tell them verbally once, and the second time should constitute a written warning. They have to understand that such behavior cannot be tolerated and why it cannot be tolerated. It’s important that the company handbook is followed consistently.”

Environmental Conditioning Systems also uses a three-step process, Ziegler noted. “It really depends on the circumstance and the behavior you are trying to change. Typically, behavior that would lead to termination would involve a three-step process over a few months, especially if the infraction was purposely going against policy.”

Sammataro said the process can be difficult to define because each person and situation is different.

“We realize that as much as we want to train everybody the same, everybody needs to be dealt with differently, because we’re all different people,” he said. “No matter how well we train and communicate openly, there’s always going to be an employee who is a little bit difficult, doesn’t understand things, or needs to be treated a different way. Sometimes, it’s hard for managers to realize that. Then you have to decide to give them a chance to grow into what you’re looking for, regardless whether its attitude- or habit-related. You give them all the tools, and, in the end, if the behavior still continues, that’s when you have to part ways.”

Sammataro said he tries to do all he can to communicate, explain, and make sure his employees understand why he wants them to do something.

“I had to let a tech go this summer over an issue of cleaning the truck,” he said. “He was a newer employee, and I checked the truck when he came in for the first time, and the truck wasn’t clean. I had a calm discussion with him because it was the first time. The next week when he came in, the truck still wasn’t clean. So, we had another conversation. The third week, when he came in, the truck was wiped down with a towel. You could tell he didn’t put a hose on it. At this point, I’m a little frustrated, so I told him if he came in the following week, and the truck wasn’t washed, he might as well turn around and go home.

“That’s where I draw the line,” he continued. “If I’m talking to somebody, and I’ve explained the situation, and they tell me, OK, they understand, then I expect the issue to be corrected. If they don’t tell me they don’t understand what I’m asking of them, then we’ve got a problem. If someone tells me they don’t understand, and that I need to explain the problem better and then mistakes are made, I’m OK with that. It’s when they tell me they got this and then continue their behavior — then it’s their choice, and that’s when I realize it’s time for them to go.”

Letting people go can be a tough call, and it really depends on the person, Sammataro said. “There are some people who you can work with to help overcome bad habits, become stronger, and grow. But, sometimes, you have to realize it is not going to work, even though that person is saying they understand the problem and will fix it. It just depends on the person you’re dealing with and his or her attitude.”

Publication date: 10/10/2016

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