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On The Rocks

Learn to recognize and deal with a ‘troubled’ employee before it affects your business.

By Dr. Robert F. Heller

In spite of your best efforts to hire the right employee for the right job and to motivate and manage in a way to maintain a happy and effective employee, problems can and will develop. Like any relationship, sometimes the differences can be worked out. Sometimes, though, they lead to a parting of the ways.

It may be that the employee has a better job opportunity elsewhere, decides to change careers, or needs to relocate for personal reasons. In these types of cases, assuming the employee has done a good job, you wish them well, have a going away party and do your best to replace them. In other situations, it may be that the employee is experiencing some level of professional burnout or that personal problems are interfering with his or her ability to do the job at the previous high standard.

Given the cost in time, money, effort and good will required to hire, train and break in new employees and the possible negative impact that an unmotivated or dissatisfied staff member can have on many facets of your business, learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of a “troubled” employee makes good sense.

EARLY WARNING SIGNS

A good manager maintains ongoing relationships with his or her employees through formal and informal methods of communication (see “Moving Ahead” in the March/April 2003 issue of Tennis Industry). This personal contact along with performance reviews reduces the risk of unwanted surprises. It alerts you to actual or potential problems, and to the changing needs or expectations of the employee.

Hopefully, if you have developed a good relationship with your employees, they will come to you with problems, either for help in resolving them or in alerting you to factors that might affect their job duties. In that way, you can possibly make plans to address the changing needs of your employee. An example might be having the time to hire someone to help out in the morning clinics while the employee takes two weeks off to deal with a family situation in another part of the country.

In cases where the employee may not come to you with problems, concerns and issues, you can rely on a knowledge baseline of past behavior and performance to notice gradual or sudden changes in their level of functioning at work. These changes may be both objective and subjective. Objective indicators include: attendance, punctuality, number of lessons taught, amount of product sold, etc. Subjective indicators include mood, attitude, demeanor (withdrawn, loss of enthusiasm, reduced effort, short temper, irritable), or comments and complaints by customers, colleagues and staff.

The earlier these warning signs are recognized and addressed, the greater likelihood there is some part you can play in helping the employee adjust, modify or view things in a more positive way to return the situation to a satisfactory level.

The most common sources of personal problems include difficulties at home with a spouse or child, problems with an aging parent, financial, health and legal concerns, and excessive use of alcohol or drugs.

The most common sources of job stress include too much or not enough responsibility, ongoing interpersonal conflict with you, other staff or customers and clients, loss of interest in the work, feeling treated unfairly, lack of opportunity to advance, not feeling valued or appreciated, dissatisfaction with work conditions, pay or benefits.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

The first thing to do is review what you have or haven’t done that may have contributed to the problem. Have you made promises you haven’t kept? Have you showed favoritism among your employees or rewarded or punished them in an arbitrary way? Have you ignored early warning signs of difficulties hoping they would go away on their own? Have you been short on praise and long on criticism?

If you identify a deficiency on your part, own up to it, rectify it and see if things start to improve.

If you are comfortable that the problem doesn’t lie within your actions, then approach the employee privately and mention your concerns as objectively as possible. Mention what you have seen or heard using “I” messages. Take on a tone of concern for the employee.

For example, “John, I noticed that you missed the staff meeting yesterday. Is everything all right?” Listen carefully to the response. Is there a reasonable excuse? Is it likely to happen again? Restate what you expect or modify it, based on what makes the most sense. Later, document your meeting and summarize what was said and agreed to.

Effective managers are flexible and creative problem solvers. If the employee does a good job, the manager might allow the employee to work earlier or later to make up for missed hours or exchange duties with another staff member to create a better job fit.

A trickier issue is when the employee’s problem lies outside of the job but has a direct impact on their job. The employer needs to balance understanding the needs of the employee with the needs, requirements and duties of the job. The manager should try to listen to and understand the pressures the employee is experiencing but should take a limited role in helping to resolve personal problems.

In most cases having a wide referral network to draw upon can be quite helpful to the employee. Offering and even suggesting contacting a relevant professional (doctor, lawyer, therapist, etc.) can be seen as a balanced approach that demonstrates caring and practical help without overstepping the bounds of the employer-employee relationship.

Hopefully, these interventions will allow the valued employee to return to their previous high level of functioning.

LETTING GO

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, the employee’s actions are either so unacceptable, the level of performance so low or the difficulties so varied and ongoing that your best decision is to let them go.

In today’s litigious times, an unhappy or angry employee can sometimes blame you for their work difficulties and even accuse you of causing their personal distress. You can be sued for age, race and gender discrimination. There are numerous local, state and national laws that savvy lawyers can dredge up to make life miserable for you even if you didn’t do anything wrong.

Depending on the size of your operation and the resources available to you, it would be best to consult with your own lawyer, human resource specialist, general manager or other specialist to determine what and how to go about laying off an employee.

Whenever possible you want the employee to be in agreement that it’s best to leave and if possible, on good terms and with a good recommendation. Ideally, termination is worked out in a way and at a time to be least disruptive to your business and to the employee’s particular situation.

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About the Author

Dr. Robert F. Heller  is a psychologist and consultant in the areas of performance enhancement and stress management. He is the author of Mental Skills for Match Play and Mental Toughness. For information on telephone consultation, products, and other services, contact robertheller@adelphia.net, thewinningedge.usptapro.com, or 561-451-2731. He is based in Boca Raton, Fla.

 


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