Dealing With the Problem Employee

Whether you're running a shop with three people or 30 people, a problem employee can be a painful thorn in your side. It's difficult enough to build and fabricate without having to deal with personality issues and people problems as well.

You come in bright and early Monday to finish sanding out those figured mahogany doors, and your helper calls in and says he's going to be late, he had "some problems" last night. Again. Aaaargh! Don't you hate it?

Here's what we've found at our own shop over the years you need to employ several tactics in dealing with problem staff members.

1. Avoid hiring this type of person wherever possible.
2. Identify the problem promptly.
3. Confront the issue head-on.
4. Resolve the matter if you can..

Before you hire
It's easy to say in hindsight that you should never have hired someone who's causing you problems. How could you have known that your new millman has a constant problem showing up to work on time? Who'd have known your new estimator would be so rude to your customers?

Well, you may be able to find these things out by asking questions before you hire people.

Many references will not say much about ex-employees, but it's worth asking anyway. Did they come to work on time, how was the quality and consistency of their work? How was this person's relationship with management? With co-workers? Any problems with their dealings with clients?

Remember that if a potential employee's references won't answer questions, you can always ask the applicant herself. There are some personal questions you may not be able to ask by law (for example, the applicant's age, sexual preferences etc.), but you can certainly probe into the person's work habits. And, you can ask them about how they have got along with the people around them managers, co-workers, clients, suppliers.

A problem employee affects those around him in your shop just as a disruptive child can hold up the progress of the whole class.

You're better off avoiding the kind of person if you can.

Trust your gut feelings here too if you feel this potential team member could be a problem, maybe you should hold off taking him on?

Or, at least, have someone else in your shop interview him first? Or ask for more references?

Lastly, you may want to have a standard "probationary" period of time for newly hired people say a month or 90 days. This way you can get a better sense of what a new person is really like before you commit to being stuck with him or her on a permanent basis.

Warning signs
When you're stuck with the problem employee, some signs may be obvious stealing, cheating, constant timecard "mistakes" (which may actually constitute fraud), to name a few.

Other indications may be harder to pinpoint slower production, for example. It takes you yourself about eight hours to trim and hang a kitchen's worth of flush inset doors; some of your staff members take longer. When an employee takes three days, though, you may have a problem be aware of it, and watch this person carefully.

Constant conflict with people around them is a sure sign of problem employees. At our own operation, it's often led to us having to move people around, to change what a person does.

An obvious sign of conflict is physical violence bad news! And this one you have to address directly and swiftly separate and maybe even send the offenders home for the rest of the day.

But much conflict may go unnoticed by you as a manager. However, you shouldn't feel bad about inquiring if you suspect discord is in the air. "How's it working out working around Joe?" is an OK question to pose to other team members. Get feedback and intelligence!

Watch for signs from your customers, too they often provide excellent "radar" for spotting problem people on your staff. Here again, it's completely acceptable to ask clients for honest and frank feedback about your company, your people and their behavior. You'll probably find that your customers will be only too glad to give you both good and bad news about your employees.

Confront it
If we've learned anything at our own company, it's that problem behavior needs to be dealt with immediately and firmly.

Throwing hand tools down onto the floor in a temper tantrum is not acceptable behavior. Neither is the constant use of foul language and remember that racial or sexual harassment can also have major consequences for you as an employer.

In the face of ground rule breaking, you can start with a verbal warning. When and if the problem persists, follow it up with a written reprimand. This written document should be signed by both manager/owner and employee, and then be placed in the employee's personal file. You might need the record if you end up firing this person.

Review your people carefully and regularly, and reference reprimands at that time. It's a way of reinforcing your company's intolerance of screwing up.

Resolving problems
Unlike your two-year-old child, a problem employee can be let go.

You don't have to put up with unacceptable behavior, especially if you have an "employment at will" agreement in place with your staff. You should make sure people coming on board with your company sign this before starting work. This is where they can leave, and you can fire them at your discretion.

This is not to say that a problem employee will not come after you for unfair dismissal and that's why a written record of reprimands and reviews may end up being very valuable.

The firing process can be important too, especially with people you've identified as problem employees. You may want consider having them leave immediately, even if you have to pay them some severance pay. There's less chance of sabotage that way, and they won't be around to poison other team members in your shop..