You know how to handle hogs, but employees are a different story. Even the thought of having to address employee challenges likely has you reaching for the antacid.

A large part of solving challenging employee situations is determining why they occur. According to human resource specialist Kathleen Boas, of Boas Associates Career Management Center, Kansas City, Mo., reasons typically fall into three categories:

1. The person can't do the job. This may be due to a lack of experience, knowledge or skill.

2. The worker doesn't want to do the job. The person may dislike the job or a particular part of it.

3. The individual won't do the job. He or she lacks motivation or is inhibited by a negative culture.

"Job performance problems are often caused by poor management – not bad employees," says Boas. "Before you run an employee out the door, make sure you're not part of the problem."

Boas shares some examples to help employers and managers identify nonperformance issues:

Problem: The worker doesn't know what you want him to do. Are you sending clear messages about jobs and responsibilities?

Solution: Give employees accurate job descriptions that detail the outcome you expect. Outline specific steps to accomplish each goal and the dates each step should begin and end.

Problem: The worker doesn't know how to do the job or some part of a job.

Solution: Choose one person to train new employees and provide reference manuals. Follow up by testing for training effectiveness.

Problem: The person doesn't understand why she should do the task. Many employees don't realize the relevance of their work.

Solution: Explain how the particular job benefits the business as a whole.

Problem: The employee thinks his way is better. Employees often assume they were hired to reinvent their jobs.

Solution: Get input from your employees. If someone presents a feasible idea for working smarter, try it. If his way won't work, sell him on yours.

Problem: The individual may have different priorities than you do.

Solution: Prioritize projects for each worker as you assign them.

Problem: The worker thinks she is doing it right. Many employees assume they're doing a good job unless they hear differently from you.

Solution: Give positive feedback. Record achievements and focus feedback on performance, not personalities.

Problem: An individual is cushioned from a job. Sometimes poor performers are given easy assignments instead of being required to meet the standards.

Solution: Monitor difficult tasks until performance meets your expectations.

When a problem occurs, start by talking with the individual. You can't make decisions without first determining the facts, says Boas.

"When a problem develops, we sit down and have open communications," says Steve Kerns, a Clearfield, Iowa, pork producer. "There must be enough trust and respect between us to talk freely about the issue or the conflict won't be resolved."

Kerns employs 14 people on his seedstock and boar stud operation. He has operated this farm since 1966 and has dealt with a variety of difficult employee situations.

"Employees must get along with each other to make it work. If they don't respect their job, employer or co-workers, they can't be an effective worker," says Kerns. His advice: Don't allow one bad personality to destroy a positive work atmosphere.

Boas suggests using the following process to address challenging employee issues.

1. Gather details of the situation from the employee and make him or her aware of the specific incident.

2. Discuss what you want him or her to do differently in the future.

3. Determine your options to resolve the problem. Mutually agree on a solution and schedule a time to review the employee's progress.

4. Determine what recourse should be taken if the problem continues.

5. Follow up. If you don't readdress the issue, the person won't know if it has been resolved.

Say you have an employee that's constantly late. Here's how you could address the issue. First, talk to him about the problem. Meet privately and let him explain why the problem exists.

Maybe he has children and doesn't have enough time to get them off to school and still get to work on time. It could be a transportation problem, or maybe he just doesn't get up on time.

After you've determined the cause, tell him what you want changed. Try to find solutions to the problem together. Perhaps you could reset his work hours to allow more time in the morning while staying later to compensate. Ultimately, give him a specific time to be at work and when he can leave.

"We address tardiness by allocating a job at the end of the day to make up for missed time," says Kerns.

Finally, determine a recourse if the problem persists. Begin with a verbal warning, and then distribute a written warning. Or you could issue a day-of-decision where you suspend the worker for a day without pay if it's not resolved.

Remember to follow up. If you don't, then he won't know whether he's improved.

"Acknowledge all improvements and nonimprovements," Boas advises. "If improvement occurs, show appreciation and be specific." This will boost the person's confidence.

If the individual fails to improve, call another meeting. Review any challenges the employee had in meeting the agreed upon solution. Clearly define the consequences if the problem persists.

The steps to resolve a problem will vary depending on the issue and your personal management style. For example, you would handle tardiness much differently than an abusive employee. In severe cases, termination may be your only recourse.

Documentation is your best friend. Keep records of any corrective actions you take. "If a problem arises, we document it in a chronological order," says Kerns. "We also use such records to illustrate lack of improvement if that's the case."
Proper documentation could be the only thing between you and successfully defending a lawsuit, poinst out Boas. Without it, a disgruntled employee could prove you were acting with prejudice toward him or her.

Boas suggests writing reports as if you'd be presenting it in a court of law. Be concise and free from emotion in the documentation.

Have a third party such as an assistant manager sign the report. It's wise to have the employee sign also.

Be fair and honest. Whenever possible, involve the employee in solving the problem. Hold the counseling session immediately after any issue arises. This will prevent more problems later.

"Look for ways to get cooperation without backing the employee into a corner," says Boas.

It's your job to find out why the problem exists and how to deal with it. Remember, it's important not to be too quick to judge or you may be pointing a finger in the wrong direction.

Whenever an employee challenge arises, you should sit down and talk with the employee or employees involved. But it's important to do it properly, says Kathleen Boas, managing director of Boas Associates Career Management Center in Kansas City, Mo.

She advises keeping the following points in mind when you counsel an employees:

  • Make sure you're meeting for the right purpose. Perhaps you want to improve a relationship, motivate an employee or resolve a conflict.
  • Arrange the meeting for an appropriate time. Don't meet when you're angry or rushed.
  • Meet in an appropriate place – a private, neutral location where you will both be comfortable
  • Be direct and to the point. Avoid mixed messages and confusing interpretations.
  • Use the right technique for the issue – nondirective or directive. A nondirective approach includes creating a relaxed atmosphere where the employee does most of the talking. This can be useful when the cause of a problem is unknown.

A directive approach involves using a firm and to-the-point manner. You do most of the talking. It's useful when you already have the facts, or performance hasn't improved.

Suppose an employee reported that a co-worker was abusing an animal. You must determine the facts before making a decision. In this case you would take a nondirective approach.

However, if you saw the worker abuse the animal, using the directive approach is appropriate. You don't need to analyze the situation; you already have the facts.

An Ounce of Prevention Keeps Workers Happy

Here are some strategies Kathleen Boas, managing director of Boas Associates Career Management Center, uses to prevent employee conflicts.

  • Make sure people know how their tasks relate to the operation's goals. Reinforce the idea that what they do is important to the business' success.
  • Clearly define your expectations. This will prevent confusion about what is a priority.
  • Listen to and address employee complaints. By listening to them, you promote respect.
  • Coach to improve performance – avoid criticism. When was the last time you told your employees "thank you" or "good job?" Positive feedback tends to promote enthusiasm and repeat performance.
  • Evaluate performance, not personalities. Make sure you recognize the difference.
  • Treat employees fairly and consistently. If you don't, you could find yourself in a court of law. Varying your judgement based on the situation is good management. Varying it based on the individual is prejudice.