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How to manage 10 sticky situations at work

As an entrepreneur, you'll run into sticky situations at work, whether it's grumbling employees or distractions, that get in the way of productivity.
The joys of management: Keeping track of all the potential problems.
The joys of management: Keeping track of all the potential problems.Duane Hoffman,
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As an entrepreneur, you'll run into sticky situations at work, whether it's grumbling employees or distractions, that get in the way of productivity.

Dealing with weirdness in the office is never easy, but it's essential to running a successful company. "Human resources problems that get ignored have a really nasty habit of not going away," says Margaret Hart Edwards, a shareholder at employment law firm Littler Mendelson.

Never fear: The experts are here to offer their advice for handling 10 sticky HR situations that might otherwise leave you floored and fumbling.

1. Two employees start dating or break up.

Forty-six percent of employees have been involved in an office romance, according to Vault's "2008 Office Romance Survey." But office relationships can create all sorts of awkward morale problems for employers, as well as legal dangers, such as sexual harassment claims. Given the potential risks, "the employer does have to intervene," Edwards says.

Meet privately with the employees and have them state that it's a voluntary, consensual relationship to protect against a sexual harassment claim. They should keep things professional, meaning no visible PDA or sharing of company information (e.g., sales leads) in ways that could put their co-workers at a disadvantage.

Also talk about the potential of a breakup and the professionalism you expect. If they're at-will employees, they should know you could fire them for inappropriate behavior.

2. An employee shares too much personal information with co-workers.

This is the employee who talks in excruciating detail about his impending divorce, recent doctor's visit or latest romantic relationship. There's no topic that's off limits — and for co-workers, there's nowhere to hide.

Tim Young, founder and CEO of multimillion-dollar software firm Socialcast, has dealt with "TMI" employees at the company's Irvine, Calif., headquarters. He takes these employees to lunch and brings up the topic. Says Young, 27, "You can coach them on reducing the amount of information they're providing to [other] employees and refocus them back on the company."

3. A laid-off employee turns vengeful.

An angry ex-employee can cause a lot of havoc, from 3 a.m. prank calls to hacking into the company's computer system.

If he takes things too far, file a property damage report with the police. Even if you're working only on suspicion that an ex-employee is behind the mischief, you can explain why you believe the ex-employee may be the culprit. "If you're lucky, the cops might call on the ex-employee and investigate it," Edwards says.

Plan ahead for ex-employees who could pose a problem. Research security companies and know how to file a restraining order, if necessary. Treat employees how you would like to be treated, too. Says Edwards, "[Lay] people off in the most respectful and humane way possible to try to minimize this sort of behavior."

4. Employees wear politics or religion on their sleeve.

Religion and politics are topics best avoided, but some employees will work them into the conversation.

There's a big difference between the employee who simply says "God bless you" and the employee who tries to convert his co-workers. As the employer, you may ask an employee to refrain from religious conversation around fellow co-workers who find it objectionable and could file harassment or hostile work environment claims. Be careful, however, not to discriminate against the employee because of her religious expression, says James M. Craig, an employment attorney with Thompson, Sizemore, Gonzalez & Hearing.

Remind employees that politics can make people angry and distract from the work. Suggest they save these discussions for break times.

5. Employees think a co-worker got an undeserved promotion.

Nelson suggests meeting with the employees who have a problem with the promotion. Talk to them about what you're hearing and let them offer their side. Tell them why this co-worker received the promotion, focusing on skill sets instead of personality traits. Then ask them to stop the negativity. "State that it's inappropriate to complain about a co-worker and that you would like them to stop doing so," says Bob Nelson, author of "1,001 Ways to Reward Employees."

Feeling passed over, ignored or underappreciated is often at the heart of this issue. If an employee feels bitter that he wasn't considered, work out a plan for developing his skills. Employees who feel heard, appreciated and upwardly mobile will be more likely to offer their congratulations.

6. An employee is planning a wedding and annoying co-workers.

Planning a wedding is a happy time in a person's life, but not if you're the planner's co-worker picking up the slack for someone more interested in place settings than spreadsheets.

This problem can fester until other employees want to throw more than rice at the betrothed. You shouldn't hold your peace as the employer. Pull this employee aside and offer your congratulations. Then say productivity is down and that her focus during work hours should be on the work. "It's a performance problem and should be addressed that way," Edwards says.

If you're generous, you might offer some short-term scheduling flexibility. If the employee balks and files for divorce from your company, maybe it's for the best.

7. An employee who needs to drive on the job gets a DUI.

Some states allow employees with DUIs to obtain a work permit to drive on the job during the suspension period, Craig says. Of course, the biggest risk you take is if the employee continues drinking and hits someone while working. "If you have reason to (believe they're still drinking) and didn't do anything, you're looking at a negligent retention claim," Craig says.

If an employee is suspended for six months and can't get a work permit, "there's not a whole lot you can do," Craig says. At this point, it's up to you whether to reassign this employee to a desk job. You're also within your rights to terminate employment, but be aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects recovering addicts. So check whether the employee has entered a recovery program before you go down that road.

8. An employee's substance-abuse problem is becoming obvious.

Young has had employees who developed substance abuse problems. He meets privately with the employee to discuss performance and behavioral problems, then he directs him toward the employee assistance program provided through Socialcast's outside HR provider. "It's important to try to dictate a plan of action," Young says.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration law expects you to provide a safe workplace, so have a drug and alcohol policy. Every state allows drug testing on a suspicion basis, and employers can require employees to submit to drug testing as a condition of continued employment, says Max Muller, author of The Manager's Guide to HR: Hiring, Firing, Performance Evaluations, Documentation, Benefits, and Everything Else You Need to Know. The law is firmly on your side if the employee isn't in recovery. Says Muller, "There is no law that covers a current user of illegal drugs."

9. There's conflict between childless employees and working parents.

Employers who ignore this delicate issue end up with unhappy workplaces where childless workers are always being asked to fill in the gaps for working parents who leave early and say they can't work weekends. "On occasion is one thing, but over time, [it] can become a habit of treating one class of employees differently from another," Nelson says.

He suggests a rotation system for projects and overtime, and allowing equal access to time off without a reason. Ask employees what would work, too. Says Nelson, "Sometimes when a policy is created and monitored by the staff, it has the best chance of being viewed as fair by everyone."

10. An employee is taking advantage of company money or equipment.

Unfortunately, every employer will have employees who secretly take from the company. In fact, hidden employee fraud filches 7 percent of a company's revenue every year, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. "The dollars lost to fraud can grow quickly," says Tracy Coenen, a forensic accountant and the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.

Employee pilfering increases in tough times, when an employee might take home a roll of paper towels or buy unnecessary office supplies just to get a free $20 coffee card. Coenen suggests writing a clear fraud policy that educates employees about what's unacceptable.

For larger cases of fraud, Coenen advises small-business employers to contact a fraud investigator and an employment attorney for legal advice. "The worst thing a company can do," she says, "is ignore a fraud problem."