Dealing With ‘Problem’ Employees

by WOHe

One of the human resource problems that I see most frequently in
the kitchen and bath industry is that of the “problem
employee.”

In reality, though, many (perhaps most) of these problems
wouldn’t even exist if the business owners had developed job
descriptions, did regular performance evaluations, had employee
handbooks and did a better job of “managing” their employees. But
because they don’t have these tools in place, they can’t identify
and correct the problems.

“Problem” performance encompasses performance that doesn’t meet
established standards of output or quality, and/or behavior that’s
distracting or disruptive to the normal conduct of operations.

Trouble signs
What follows are some of the signs of a troubled worker:

  • Sudden changes in behavior. (Theresa used to smile and laugh a
    lot, but she hasn’t lately. What’s up?)
  • Preoccupation. (You talk to Scott and he doesn’t seem to hear
    or pay attention. Is something
    bothering him?)
  • Irritability. (Laura is short with everyone even customers. She
    was never like this before. What’s causing the problem?)
  • More Absences. (Bonnie had only missed two days of work in five
    years, but in the past three months she’s missed six days. Was she
    sick, or is it something else?)
  • Increased Fatigue. (Ken used to be a ball of fire, but now
    complains of being tired all the time. Is it physical, or is he
    worried about something?)
  • Too Much Drinking. (Bill has been more jittery than ever
    before, and you think you’ve smelled alcohol on his breath several
    times. What’s going on?)
  • Reduced Productivity. (Petra has slowed down dramatically for
    no apparent reason. Why?)
  • Mistakes. (Andrea very seldom made mistakes, but recently she’s
    had problems with almost every job. What’s changed?)
  • Difficulty in absorbing new training. (Tom was always a quick
    study on the computer, but now he has trouble learning new
    assignments. Is there a problem?)
  • Substance Abuse. (Doug has that “spaced-out” look. He’s had
    trouble finishing his last two assignments. Either he’s so hyped up
    with excitement that he can’t concentrate, or he’s falling asleep
    at his desk. Why?)

First, you as the boss have to be perceptive enough to pick up
on changes as they occur with your employees subtle as the changes
may be. Once you’ve identified a change that has become detrimental
to the business, you have to find a way to address it.

Open and honest communication is the obvious first step, but
because of the sensitivity of some of the problems I’ve noted, you
can’t simply accuse the employee. What you should do is have a
“sit-down” in a quiet, uninterrupted environment and state your
concern for both the employee and the level of his or her job
performance. State facts, times, situations, mistakes, etc. Be
empathetic, be a good listener, coax the employee to open up and
share. Let them know that you care!

Steps to take
What follows are 10 steps you might follow when you are meeting
with a troubled employee:

  1. Consider what you’re going to say to the employee beforehand.
    You want to be able to state your concerns in a complete, direct,
    businesslike fashion.
  2. Think about any possible rebuttals or excuses you may receive
    from the employee and be ready to counter them.
  3. Hold the session in private, away from other employees, and
    avoid interruptions.
  4. Be sure to follow the formalities of company policy. If there
    aren’t any, develop them now. Most procedures follow a pattern of
    progressive discipline with an informal verbal warning, a formal
    verbal warning, a written warning, possible suspension, and then
    termination. More serious offenses such as theft or physical
    assaults may be dealt with by eliminating the initial steps, and
    going directly to suspension or termination.
  5. If, during the “sit-down,” the employee gets emotional, wait
    until he or she calms down before you proceed. If you can’t settle
    things down, state that the discussion will have to continue at
    another time.
  6. Be specific about what the employee has done wrong.
  7. Try to combine positive aspects of the employee’s performance
    with the negative, if possible. If you only discuss negatives,
    employees may feel that they’re being “set up” for termination, and
    that it wouldn’t do any good to try and improve.
  8. Always be flexible in listening to what your employee has to
    say. Sometimes, there may be a personal problem that’s the cause
    for the change in behavior or performance.’
  9. Don’t let the employee sidetrack the conversation by bringing
    up unrelated issues.
  10. Once the employee agrees that there’s a problem, work to
    develop a plan and time frame to correct it. An informal “contract”
    should be made between the two of you. It should state what steps
    will be taken, what results will be expected and what the time
    frame for the improvement will be. A follow-up meeting should also
    be set.

If the employee is not willing to admit there’s a problem, your
job is more difficult. When this happens, you have to stick to the
facts, pointing out that productivity and/or performance is not up
to par and must improve. Once again, suggest a course of action,
time frames and a follow-up evaluation. If the problem persists,
let the employee know, in clear terms, that it could lead to
termination. And, remember to document every meeting, every
conversation and every detail.

The employee may have a problem that’s more serious than you may
be able to help with. They may need outside professional help. It’s
your job as the boss, and as a concerned human being, to be sure
that this is addressed.

Most kitchen and bath firms are small. Knowing everyone fairly
intimately makes the job of identifying changes in behavior easier.
But whether a business is small or large, problem employees can act
like a cancer. One employee’s problem or bad attitude can rub off
on others, and cause serious problems.
It behooves you to learn to identify problems and to address them
immediately. Everyone will benefit.

Hank Darlington is a Gold River, CA-based writer, business
management instructor and former kitchen and bath “whotail”
business owner who does consulting for kitchen and bath dealers,
wholesalers and manufacturers.

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