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A broken relationship. The death of a loved one. Divorce. A chronic health problem. Alcohol or drug abuse.

Personal problems.

Everyone has them, but they don’t always leave them at home when it’s time to go to work. It’s no different on dairy operations. Sometimes, personal problems dissipate before they cause performance issues. At other times, they hurt job performance, employee morale and the health of your business.

Personal problems can manifest themselves at work in the way employees do their job and how they interact with co-workers. Here are some ways to spot employees who tuck their personal problems into their pocket and tote them to work everyday.

Look for a change in behavior
Each day, you observe the cows, looking for abnormalities in their behavior. Maybe they are hanging back from the bunk, or they seem a little out of sorts. Usually, a change in behavior indicates something is wrong, says Don Tyler, an independent personnel-management consultant in Clarks Hill, Ind. “It’s the same way with people,” he says. When something’s wrong, they show it.

Behavioral changes are some of the most obvious signs that a personal problem exists. Keep your eyes open for changes in these three key areas:

  • Interaction with co-workers.

    A change in the way an employee acts toward co-workers is a good clue that a personal problem is plaguing them during work hours. In fact, personal problems often show up here first, says Bob Milligan, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies, a dairy business management consulting firm based in Madison, Wis.

    For example, stress from a personal problem can cause someone who’s normally pretty easy-going to snap at other co-workers over minor things. Everyone has a bad day from time to time, but chronic behavior like this can be a sign of a nagging personal problem.

    Another sign is an employee who is usually social with co-workers either on or off the farm but now distances himself from others or is abnormally quiet at social gatherings.

  • Attitude.

    A change in attitude is another telltale symptom of an employee with a personal problem.

    For example, if Joe, who is usually the “spark plug” of the group — the one who is upbeat, enthusiastic and a real motivator of other team members — is now the one who needs constant encouragement, you might have an employee on your hands who is struggling with a problem. Or maybe Joe’s usually chipper “Good morning” isn’t as perky as it used to be. Perhaps he’s noticeably more pessimistic or makes remarks that reflect a bad attitude like “I don’t care anymore.”

  • Job performance.

    “If people are feeling differently, they behave differently, and if they behave differently, they perform differently,” Milligan says.

    More often than not, job performance turns sour when a personal problem surfaces at work.

    Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, but chronic slip-ups in performance by an employee who is usually very careful about his work should send up a red flag. Or, maybe an employee isn’t as efficient as he used to be.

    The same can be said for an employee who is normally punctual, but is now tardy to work on an ongoing basis.

    Remember, “anything that is out of the ordinary,” is a good clue that something’s wrong, Tyler says. But be careful not to make assumptions too early. Look for patterns that develop over a period of time.

Personal problem or work problem?
The symptoms of a personal problem — bad attitude, poor job performance or a change in the way employees interact with co-workers — can be difficult to distinguish from work-related problems.

For example, if an employee distances herself from the group, it could be the result of harassment on the job. A change in how an employee interacts with the group also could be the result of a racial or cultural issue, Tyler says. Or, it could be that withdrawal is the result of a personal problem that has led to depression.

A lot of times, you won’t be able to tell the difference based on just these surface signs. To get to the root of the problem requires some carefully planned, systematic inquiry.

But be careful, if it is a personal problem, and it’s not affecting job performance, then it’s really none of your business, says Milligan. While it’s only natural for caring human beings to want to befriend and help an employee who is struggling with a personal problem, from a legal standpoint, you need to tread carefully.

If, however, an employee wants to seek you out for help, that’s a different story, explains Milligan. But, by and large, meddling in an employee’s personal life is strictly hands off, unless it disrupts the performance of your business.

Next month, we’ll provide some tips on how to approach employees whose personal problems are affecting their performance and the health of your business.