"Damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" dilemmas play out every day in our industry and other workplaces.

A bad day is when a vehicle or key piece of equipment breaks down. A horrendous day is when something goes haywire with the most complex machinery you work with -- the human mind. Technical problems can be hard to diagnose, but you can be sure they have logical solutions. Not so when dealing with troubled employees.

Most frustrating of all are those "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" employee dilemmas. Case in point: several years ago, Coors Brewing Co. found itself caught between a rock and a hard place in getting sued by one employee for alleged sexual harassment, and by the accused harasser for slander and wrongful termination. They settled the harassment case for $200,000, in addition to spending some $600,000 investigating the charges and another $300,000 providing the accuser with 24-hour bodyguard service and a heavy-duty security system for her home. This was based on the woman's charges of death threats, stalking and other lurid retribution after she left the company.

The accused was a 24-year company veteran who got fired as a result. He sued Coors and his accuser. A jury found him convincing enough to award $725,000 for defamation and breach of contract by Coors, along with $700,000 from his accuser.

I don't have a clue as to which party was telling the truth. This much is certain, though -- one way or the other, the employer was victimized.

An employer's worst nightmare is that some deranged employee might turn hostile in a way that too often makes front-page headlines. Mindless workplace violence touched our industry several years ago when a truck driver employed by a Ferguson Enterprises branch killed a co-worker and a person from another company in a dispute arising from delivery routes. An isolated incident to be sure, but most wholesalers who have been in business for a while have tales of heated arguments, fistfights or other incidents of employees going over the edge. A contractor once told me of a disgruntled plumber who "got even" by defecating in a customer's base-ment.

And then there are the run-of-the-mill episodes that occur every day to someone around the country and tax the wisdom of even the most enlightened managers. An example was described by a woman who co-manages a PHC service company with her husband. Several service techs had come to her with information that a colleague was stealing from the homes of customers. The woman was smart enough to seek advice from a labor law expert before confronting the accused. She proceeded as follows.

First, she asked the accusers to repeat their statements on paper. She assured them that the accused would not know the source of the complaint unless the case went to trial, and no retaliation would be made against those who filed the complaints. A bookkeeper was present to witness their testimony.

Right away the plan started falling apart. Although all the accusers concurred that the colleague looked into peoples' closets, drawers and cupboards, the two who said they witnessed him taking stuff refused to put it in writing. Nor could they remember exact places and dates.

The employer then confronted the accused. He repeatedly denied ever stealing, but admitted he liked to "snoop." He asked for one more chance, and promised that his so-called snooping behavior would stop.

A case could be made for firing him immediately, but the contractor was leery of doing so in light of the weak testimony against him. "What most disappointed me was that the co-workers did not have the character and guts to stand behind what they first told me," she told me. She also sensed some personal grudges and wasn't absolutely sure the accusations might not have been exaggerated.

So she put the accused on probation, revoking his truck privileges and saying she was going to review the situation in 30 days to determine whether or not to continue employing him.

I think this woman did just about everything right in handling this situation, but there was no perfect solution. Many of you no doubt would have fired the "snooper" without further ado, but the vague testimony against him could have proven costly if he had chosen to file a wrongful termination suit. All things considered, she was probably correct in delaying a decision.

In fact, within days the situation did clarify itself. Although in his meeting with the employer the accused was apologetic about his behavior, she learned that shortly afterward he confronted co-workers with words to the effect that "if I go down, you will all go down with me." This convinced two other techs to come forward with signed statements that they had seen the accused take customer property. "We decided to lay him off for 'lack of work,'" the employer told us.

Another dilemma arose in the aftermath. The laid-off service tech, described as an exceptionally good mechanic, had applied for work with another service contractor who is a good friend of the former employers. Yet, they were fearful of legal repercussions if they said anything bad about their former employee. Modern life gets complicated, doesn't it?

All of you have faced similar dilemmas in your day-to-day working lives. What SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES would like to do here is share with you some advice from a variety of experts in dealing with employee turmoil. We hope their tips will help you minimize the problems, and deal with them successfully when they inevitably arise.

Ounces Of Prevention

It pays to be extra careful prior to hiring. This is easier said than done, of course. In today's world, many former employers are, like the woman just cited, hesitant to say anything negative about former employees for fear of defamation lawsuits. Also, the shortage of skilled workers is so severe everyone is under pressure to tolerate a certain degree of aberrant behavior in otherwise competent employees.

But you must not give in to that temptation. Hiring a head case usually leads to far more trouble than can be justified by any short-term business advantage. Do not fail to do at least the following:

Check references -- but not only the ones supplied. References furnished by the applicant will usually have positive things to say about the person. Call them just to verify that the names are genuine, but also ask them to refer you to others who are familiar with the applicant and who may not be listed as references. Seek opinions of former supervisors, suppliers and others likely to have had contact with the person in previous jobs.

A good question to ask former employers -- "Would you hire this person again?" A long delay followed by "no comment" would speak volumes.

Be alert for red flags. A history of frequent job-hopping certainly ought to sound alarms. So should long gaps in employment history, which could indicate time spent in prison or some other unsavory background. However, clever applicants know to cover up job-hopping or employment gaps by fibbing about past employment tenure. So always be sure to call past employers to verify employment dates.

This also serves as a good opening to probe for more detailed comments about job performance. Many past employers won't take the bait, but some might.

Most job applications have a "reasons for leaving" box. Have your guard up when you see the phrase "personality conflict," especially when it appears more than once.

Background checks. Any owner who doesn't conduct a background check of a service tech applicant's driving, financial and criminal records is asking for trouble. As far as customers are concerned, the employee they deal with is your company. Don't you want to be thorough investigating the people who represent you?

Things can get really sticky when you uncover evidence of drug abuse, alcoholism or other character flaws that nowadays masquerade as disabilities. It's unlawful to discriminate, but at the same time, are you sure you know how to tell if someone has straightened out? And for how long?

Pre-employment screening. You can eliminate many potential problems simply by being forthright about non-negotiable company policies. In your recruitment ads state that people need not apply unless they are willing to wear short hair, remove body jewelry, undergo random drug tests, etc.

In today's tight job market, many owners end up compromising their standards in order to hire warm bodies capable of doing the work. It's easy to rationalize that not every guy with a ponytail and earring is necessarily a bad person, and that most people nowadays are used to seeing young folks assert their individuality with pierced bodies and spiked hair. This is a business decision, and not always a harmful one. Just be aware, though, that once you give in out of desperation, you have little credibility for a later crackdown.

The interview. Don't just chit-chat. Give some thought to the questions to be asked in a job interview. Use open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." The more you get applicants to talk about themselves, the better you will understand what makes them tick.

Good questions to ask:

  • Why are you applying for this job?
  • What did you like about your previous job?
  • What did you dislike about it?
  • What past job did you like/dislike the most? Why?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What do you like to do when you're not working?
  • Describe the ideal job for yourself.
  • What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
  • What are some of the problems you encountered in your past job? How did you resolve them?
  • Tell me about a customer complaint you've had, and how you resolved it.
  • What do you feel an employer owes his employees? What does an employee owe his employer?
  • Is there anything we haven't talked about that you think important for me to know about you?

Get the picture? A successful interview is one in which the applicant does 90% of the talking. Some applicants may not be very articulate. That shouldn't necessarily disqualify them as long as you detect sincerity.

But take a pass on the applicant if s/he speaks mostly negatively about past jobs, supervisors and co-workers. This is precisely the kind of person likely to be a constant thorn in your side.

Job interviews in today's world require you to negotiate a minefield of taboos. It is illegal to pry into personal lives with questions about marital status, age, medical/mental problems and a host of other sensitive areas. Yet, these are the root causes of many problems that arise with employees.

Human resources professionals have become skilled at framing questions in a way that obeys the law but still elicits useful information. "The key to asking legal questions is to focus on the job responsibilities and requirements," said a highly regarded H.R. executive (who happens to be married to me).

For instance, some of the jobs she hires for require employees to travel about half the time. One could get in trouble asking questions about family life or other personal issues that might interfere with extensive travel. Instead, a knowledgeable H.R. person will frame the question as, "Is there anything that would prevent you from traveling 50% of the time?" The applicant need only answer yes or no, not necessarily discussing what it is that gets in the way of travel.

Here are some questions wholesaler employers might need to ask along the same lines.

  • The hours of this position are 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Are you able to work these hours?
  • This position requires you to work overtime without advance notice. Would you be able to commit to this obligation?
  • This position requires that you be able to lift and move around equipment weighing up to XXX pounds. Are you able to do this?

Family obligations or injuries might prevent someone from abiding by these requirements. But don't dare ask about such things pointblank.

Pounds Of Cure

Even if you're careful, a problem employee is apt to slip in under your radar sooner or later. Then you are torn between the need to protect your company, customers and other employees from the troublemaker, and handling him/her with kid gloves so as not to run afoul of the law or trigger irrational behavior.

Judging from anecdotal evidence, I would guess there to be more problem employees around than ever before in the PHC industry. The main reason is because the shortage of skilled workers leads business owners and managers to take a chance on people they would not have hired if they had more choice. Plus, everyone is so afraid of lawsuits they put up with behavior that years ago would have gotten an employee fired without a second thought.

The first step in protecting yourself is to have an employee manual that spells out clear-cut do's and don'ts. Whatever else the manual says, make sure your policy includes a statement of "zero tolerance" of physical violence, threats or intimidation toward anyone.

The next step is to enforce your policies evenhandedly. This, too, sounds easier than it is. Most employers are willing to wink at small misdeeds by otherwise good workers. But enforcing the rules selectively opens the door to grief when you try to use them to nail a troublemaker.

In any case, don't think for a moment that words on paper offer significant protection against legal action. For instance, almost every employee manual includes a statement invoking the "at-will" doctrine of employment. This essentially says that you retain the right to dismiss any employee at any time for no reason. This is supposed to be a legally valid concept. But you are asking for trouble if you try to invoke it with an employee who is elderly, disabled, a minority or member of any other class of people offered special protection against employment discrimination. And nowadays, there's hardly anybody left who isn't. (Advocates for the Americans With Disabilities Act smugly proclaim that its provisions cover one out of every six Americans. If you're like me, you may scratch your head wondering how one out of every six of us qualifies as disabled, but that's politics.)

Many employers grow complacent once they have all the boilerplate in place. However, a sharp plaintiff attorney can have your carefully crafted disclaimers rendered moot faster than a judge can read them. S/he can convince a court that precedent rulings supercede your language, or that the rules you set are selectively enforced, or are themselves in violation of some obscure law, or use myriad other legal tricks to get your paperwork disregarded by the court. Lawyers are professional con artists, and if an employee really wants to come at you with a lawsuit for a real or imagined violation, nothing you do can stop him.

Legal boilerplate is an inadequate substitute for good employee relations --meaning good human relations. Your best protection is to get your people on your side. Aim to run the kind of company that builds loyalty among the vast majority of employees. You want them taking your side in disputes and protecting company interests rather than those of co-workers. Treat them fairly. Hear them out. Understand their needs. Empower them with the level of authority needed to do their jobs effectively and with pride.

Many people in this industry come from construction backgrounds, a field not exactly known for interpersonal sensitivity. But good supervision is not a matter of being "nice" to people. It's more about being fair. It's not at all difficult to make all of your employees like you. Just give in to their every whim. Do that and they'll weep for you when you go out of business, which you inevitably will, because keeping everyone happy at all times will tax all of your financial and emotional assets. More than being liked, you must strive to be respected as a fair and caring employer.

This requires honest performance appraisals at all levels of the company, with some relationship between performance and compensation. Everyone wants to know how they are doing, and what they need to do to improve if necessary. You need to explain, document and discuss poor performance, and have means of training for people who don't measure up.

"Nice" managers are apt to give good ratings to poor performers. Doing so invites trouble. When performance problems arise, they should be addressed on the spot, not put off until an annual review.

Wholesaler companies tend to be family-owned enterprises, and this presents special problems in keeping the troops happy. A cleavage tends to develop between family members in the business and "everyone else." Different rules and discipline come into play. Family members tend to make more money than outsiders. (Don't think for a moment that you can keep secret for long what everyone in the company gets paid.) Most successful family-run businesses are those where special treatment is kept within reasonable bounds, and where the family members are perceived as pulling their own weight.

Many family business experts advise letting young family members work outside the family company for a period of time before appointing them to positions of responsibility. This teaches them humility, and what it's like to be an employee. They also gain exposure to different methods and ideas.

At some point it may become necessary to lay off or fire people, either for cause or simply because of poor business conditions. If a termination comes as a surprise to the person being let go, it's a sign of inattentive management. Most of us can sense when we are floundering in a job, and if a person doesn't, it's up to the boss to make sure the individual knows.

Managing people is more art than science. Perhaps the biggest mistake made repeatedly by small companies is to promote their best performers to supervisory positions based on technical skills alone. Even worse, they throw them out there without a minute's training in management and supervisory skills.

This is a recipe for creating problem employees where they did not exist before. Enough real problems exist out there. Don't create your own.