You could always count on Joe to get calves off to a good start. His attention to detail and his “get the job done right” attitude were some of the attributes that made him your top calf raiser. You rarely lost a calf. But lately, something seemed to be bothering Joe, and it was starting to show in his performance. Calves weren’t getting colostrum on time — or sometimes not at all. Health problems were creeping up, and you were losing more calves than before.

Poor performance on the job can be an outward symptom of an underlying personal problem. (To learn how to spot employees who are having personal problems, please see “Does it show at work?” on page 21 in the January issue.)

Use these steps to help you interact with employees like “Joe” whose personal problems are interfering with job performance.

1. Know when to intervene.

Before you approach an employee who is having a personal problem, make sure you have grounds to do so.

Personal problems that smolder during work hours cause a change in behavior. If that change in behavior causes job performance to suffer, or leads to problems with co-workers, then it’s your responsibility as an employer to approach the employee, says Don Tyler, an independent personnel-management consultant in Clarks Hill, Ind.

However, if a personal problem is not affecting job performance, stay out of it, but continue to monitor the situation, Tyler adds.

The only other time that you would choose to get involved is when the employee seeks you out for help.

2. Get prepared.

If a performance issue arises, make some preparations before you initiate the conversation.

Review the employee’s job description, the standard operating procedures associated with that job, and the discipline policy explained in your employee handbook. If you review these three things before the conversation, it will help you stay focused on performance issues, Tyler says.

3. Initiate the conversation.

Now comes the part many people dread — approaching the employee and initiating the conversation.

Keep in mind, the goal of this initial conversation is not to dig up gossip, but rather to point out that you’ve noticed a change in the employee’s job performance. “The trick is to keep asking questions. Don’t make statements,” Tyler says.

The following dialogue, scripted by Tyler, is an example of how to strike up a conversation with an employee who is having a personal problem.

Employer: “Joe, it seems like you’re distracted lately. I noticed that it’s starting to affect your work. Is there anything wrong?”

Joe:      “No, everything’s fine...”

Employer: “Well, I’ve noticed some specific things that you aren’t doing as well as you used to. Can you tell me why that might be happening?”

Joe:      “I’ve been under a lot of pressure at home lately.”

Employer: “I hear you. We’ve all been there at some point in time. Is it a financial problem… a relationship issue?”

Joe:      “Money’s tight. Too many bills… My wife and I argue about it all the time… people are calling… we’re not sure how to fix it.”

Employer: “I understand. And I want you to know that your problems matter to me. The challenge is that we need to help you come up with a way to focus on work while you are at work, and focus on real solutions to your financial situation while you are at home. Would you be interested in talking about how we can do that?”

Joe:      “What do you mean?”

Employer: “Here’s what I’m thinking about… I’m not a financial guru, and you know that we have a strict policy about not making loans to employees, but I do have some phone numbers of people who could help you.  If I get you those numbers, will you make the calls?”

Joe:  “I suppose….”

Employer: “Well, I was hoping for a little more commitment than that, but I’ll take it as a step in the right direction. The problem is that this home situation is affecting your work and your relationship with your co-workers. We need to fix that. Go ahead and finish up what you are doing, and in an hour or so, come to the office and I’ll get you those numbers. We’ll talk about how we can get you back on the right track at work, too.  Does that sound like a good idea?”

Joe:      “I guess so.”

Employer: “That’s fine. One other thing… we work on this can you make a deal with me?”

Joe:      “What kind of deal?”

Employer: “Here’s the deal. While you are at work, you spend 100 percent of your time thinking about work, and when you are off work, you don’t think about work at all and spend all the time you need thinking about your family situation. Is that a deal?”

Joe:      “I think that will work.”

Employer: “Fine, let’s shake on it, and I’ll see you in about an hour.”

4. Monitor the situation.

Personal problems take time to resolve.

However, if the employee denies that there is a problem with job performance, or is simply not meeting his end of the deal at work, then fall back on your standard operating procedures and your discipline policy, if necessary. Use these tools to help the employee stay focused on the job during the work day, and what will happen if poor performance is not corrected.

Many dairy operations use a simple, four-step discipline policy, says Tom Maloney, senior extension associate in the department of applied economics and management at CornellUniversity. These steps generally include: 1) a verbal warning, 2) a written warning, 3) a second written warning and 4) potential dismissal.

Remember, too, that there are certain actions — like drinking alcohol or doing drugs on the job — that may require immediate termination.

5. Show concern, but keep your distance.

If an employee reveals a personal problem to you, you may be tempted to help solve the problem.

“Don’t become part of the solution,” Tyler warns. “I have never heard a client say, ‘I helped someone with a marriage problem, and it worked out well,’” he says.

“Show your concern, get them professional help, but keep your distance,” he advises. 

Often times, when people are frustrated by personal problems, they don’t know where to start. So, put together a list of local contacts for them. Keep this information readily available, but not necessarily in your employee handbook. You don’t want to make it seem like they must use these approved counselors, or that you will pay for these services, Tyler adds.

Include names and contact information of local churches, financial counselors, marriage and family counselors, insurance agents, substance-abuse recovery programs, and so forth.

If you offer an employee-assistance program through your health insurance provider, direct the employee to that resource if necessary.

The important point is, whatever help you offer, be prepared to treat all employees the same — whether they are veteran members of your team, new hires or even family members who work on the dairy.

“In the end, it’s the employee’s responsibility to correct the performance problem, and hopefully solve the personal problem as well,” Maloney says.