Dealing with problem employees can be difficult, but there is a right way to handle them.

A bad workday is when a vehicle or key piece of equipment breaks down. A horrendous workday is when something goes haywire with the most complex machinery you work with - the human mind. Technical problems can be hard to diagnose, but you can be sure they have logical solutions. Not so when dealing with troubled employees.

Many of these situations are no-win dilemmas. Several years ago, a female employee sued Golden, Colo.-based Coors Brewing Co. for sexual harassment. Coors settled the harassment case for $200,000, but it spent another $600,000 investigating the charges and $300,000 more providing the accuser with a 24-hour bodyguard and a heavy-duty security system for her home. This was based on the woman's charges of death threats, stalking and other lurid retribution after she left the company.

The accused harasser, a 24-year company employee, was fired. He sued Coors and his accuser for slander and wrongful termination. A jury awarded him $725,000 for defamation and breach of contract by Coors.

Regardless of who was telling the truth in the harassment case, the employer was also a victim.

Nightmares

An employer's worst nightmare is that some deranged employee might turn hostile in a way that often makes front-page headlines. Workplace violence touched the construction industry several years ago when a truck driver employed by a Ferguson Enterprises branch killed a co-worker and a person from another company in a dispute over delivery routes.

An isolated incident, but many companies who have been in business for a while have tales of intense arguments, fistfights or other examples of employees going over the edge. And then there are the run-of-the-mill episodes that occur every day to someone around the country and tax the wisdom of even the most enlightened managers.

A woman who manages a service company with her husband described an example. Several service techs had told her that a colleague was stealing from the homes of customers. The woman was smart enough to seek advice from a labor-law expert before confronting the accused.

Following the expert's advice, she asked the accusers to write their statements on paper. She assured them that the accused would not know the source of the complaint unless the case went to trial, and no retaliation would be made against those who filed the complaints. A bookkeeper was present to witness their testimony.

Accusations fly

Right away, the plan started falling apart. Although all the accusers concurred that the colleague looked into peoples' closets, drawers and cupboards, the two who said they witnessed him taking stuff refused to put it in writing. Nor could they remember exact places and dates.

The employer then confronted the accused. He repeatedly denied ever stealing, but admitted he liked to "snoop." He asked for one more chance, and promised that his snooping behavior would stop.

A case could be made for firing him immediately, but the contractor was leery of doing so in light of the weak testimony against him.

"What most disappointed me was that the co-workers did not have the character and guts to stand behind what they first told me," she said. She also sensed some personal grudges and wasn't sure the accusations might not have been exaggerated.

So, she put the accused on probation, revoking his truck privileges and said she was going to review the situation in 30 days to determine whether or not to continue employing him.

Many companies would have fired the "snooper" without much thought, but the vague testimony against him could have proven costly if he had chosen to file a wrongful-termination suit.

More problems

Although in his meeting with the employer the accused was apologetic about his behavior, she learned that shortly afterward he confronted his co-workers, saying, "If I go down, you will all go down with me." This convinced two other techs to come forward with signed statements that they had seen the accused take customer property. The employer then decided to lay him off due to "lack of work."

Another dilemma soon arose. The laid-off service tech, described as an exceptionally good mechanic, had applied for work with another contractor who was a good friend of the former employers. Yet, they were fearful of legal repercussions if they said anything bad about their former employee.

Many sheet metal and HVAC companies have faced similar dilemmas. Here are some suggestions from experts in dealing with employee turmoil.

It pays to be extra careful prior to hiring. However, today many former employers are hesitant to say anything negative about former employees for fear of defamation lawsuits. Also, the shortage of skilled workers is so severe many companies are under pressure to tolerate a certain degree of aberrant behavior in otherwise competent employees.

Don't take the easy route out

But you must not give in to that temptation, experts say. Hiring a troubled employee often leads to more problems than can be justified by any short-term business advantage. At a minimum, hiring managers should:

· Check references. However, don't just check the ones supplied by the potential employee. References furnished by applicants will usually have positive things to say about them. Call them just to verify that the names are genuine, but also ask them to refer you to others who are familiar with the applicant who may not be listed as references. Seek opinions of former supervisors, suppliers and others likely to have had contact with the person in previous jobs.

A good question to ask former employers is, "Would you hire this person again?" A long delay, followed by "no comment," could be very telling.

· Be alert for red flags. A history of frequent job-hopping ought to sound alarms. So should long gaps in employment history, which could indicate time spent in prison or some other unsavory background. However, clever applicants know to cover up job-hopping or employment gaps by fibbing about past employment tenure. So always call past employers to verify employment dates.

This could also serve as a good way to probe for more details about job performance. Many past employers won't talk, but some might.

Most job applications have a space where applicants can write why they left a previous job. Take notice when you see the phrase "personality conflict," especially when it appears more than once.

· Background checks. Any company that doesn't check an applicant's driving, financial or criminal records is asking for trouble. As far as customers are concerned, the service tech who visits their home is your company. You want to be thorough investigating the people who represent you.

Things can get sticky when you uncover evidence of drug abuse, alcoholism or other problems. It's unlawful to discriminate, but you should know if someone has straightened out his or her life.

· Pre-employment screening. Companies can eliminate many potential problems simply by being forthright about non-negotiable company policies. In recruitment ads, state that people need not apply unless they are willing to wear short hair, remove body jewelry or undergo random drug tests.

Many owners end up compromising their standards in order to hire warm bodies capable of doing the work. It's easy to rationalize that not every guy with a ponytail and earring is necessarily a bad person, and that most people nowadays are used to seeing young folks assert their individuality with pierced bodies and spiked hair. This is a business decision, and not always a harmful one. Just be aware that once you give in out of desperation, you have little credibility for a later crackdown.

What to say

· The interview. Don't just chitchat. Give some thought to the questions to be asked in a job interview. Use open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. The more you get applicants to talk about themselves, the better you will understand what makes them tick. Good questions to ask include:

Why are you applying for this job?

What did you like about your previous job?

What did you dislike about it?

What past job did you like (dislike) the most? Why?

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

What do you like to do when you're not working?

Describe your ideal job.

What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

What are some of the problems you encountered in your past job? How did you resolve them?

Tell me about a customer complaint you had, and how you resolved it.

What do you feel a company owes its employees? What does an employee owe his or her employer?

Is there anything we haven't talked about that you think important for me to know about you?

Have you ever heard of flat-rate pricing? What do you think about it? (Very important questions if you operate a flat-rate service firm.)

Learn to listen

Get the picture? A successful interview is one in which the applicant does 90 percent of the talking. Some applicants may not be very articulate. That shouldn't necessarily disqualify them, as long as you detect sincerity.

But take a pass on applicants that speak mostly negatively about past jobs, supervisors and co-workers. This is precisely the kind of person likely to be a constant problem.

Remember it is illegal to pry into personal lives with questions about marital status, age, medical or mental problems and other sensitive areas. However, these are the root causes of many employee problems.

Human-resources professionals have become skilled at framing questions in a way that obeys the law but still elicits useful information. Experts say the key to asking legal questions is to focus on the job responsibilities and requirements.

For instance, if a job requires extensive travel, an employer could get in trouble asking questions about family life or other personal issues that might interfere with such requirements. Instead, a knowledgeable personnel staff member might say, "Is there anything that would prevent you from traveling 50 percent of the time?"

The applicant need only answer yes or no, not necessarily discussing what it is that gets in the way of travel.

A right way to ask

Here are some other questions company officials may want to ask:

"The hours of this position are 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Are you able to work these hours?"

"This position requires you to work overtime without advance notice. Would you be able to commit to this obligation?"

"This position requires that you be able to lift and move around equipment weighing up to 100 pounds. Are you able to do this?"

Family obligations or injuries might prevent someone from abiding by these requirements, but don't ask about such things directly.

Even if you're careful, a problem employee is likely to eventually be hired. Then you are torn between the need to protect your company, customers and other employees from the troublemaker, and handling him or her so as not to run afoul of the law or trigger irrational behavior.

The first step in protecting your company is to have an employee manual that clearly spells out dos and don'ts. Make sure your policy includes a statement of "zero tolerance" on physical violence, threats or intimidation toward anyone.

Enforcement issues

Make sure company policies are enforced. Many employers are willing to wink at small misdeeds by otherwise good workers. But enforcing the rules selectively opens the door to grief when you try to use them to nail a troublemaker.

Even if your employee manual includes these provisions, don't think that words on paper offers significant protection against legal action. For instance, almost every employee manual includes a statement invoking the "at-will" employment clause. This says that company officials retain the right to dismiss any employee at any time for any reason, or no reason. This is supposed to be a legally valid concept. But you are asking for trouble if you try to invoke it with an employee who is older, handicapped, a minority or a member of any other people offered special protection against employment discrimination.

Many employers grow complacent once they have all proper procedures in place. However, a sharp plaintiff attorney can have your carefully crafted disclaimers rendered moot faster than a judge can read them. Attorneys can convince a court that precedent rulings supercede your language, or that the rules you set are selectively enforced, or are themselves in violation of some obscure law, or use other laws to get your paperwork disregarded by the court.

Legal mumbo jumbo is an inadequate substitute for good employee relations - meaning good human relations. Your best protection is to get your people on your side. Aim to run the kind of company that builds loyalty among the majority of employees. You want them taking your side in disputes and protecting company interests rather than those of co-workers. Treat them fairly. Hear them out. Understand their needs. Empower them with the level of authority needed to do their jobs effectively and with pride.

Be fair, not ‘nice'

Many people in the HVAC and sheet-metal industries come from construction backgrounds, a field not exactly known for its sensitivity towards employees. But good supervision is not a matter of being "nice" to people. It's more about being fair.

This requires honest performance appraisals at all levels of the company, with some relationship between performance and compensation. Employees want to know how they're doing and what needs to improve if necessary. Explain, document and discuss poor performance, and have means of training for people who don't measure up.

"Nice" managers are apt to give good ratings to poor performers. Doing so invites trouble. When performance problems arise, they should be addressed on the spot, not put off until an annual review.

Many construction companies are family owned, and that can present special problems in keeping everyone happy. Rifts often develop between family members in the business and "everyone else." Different rules and discipline come into play. Family members tend to make more money than outsiders. Most successful family run businesses are those where special treatment is kept within reasonable bounds, and where the family members are perceived as pulling their own weight.

Many family business experts advise letting young family members work outside the family company before appointing them to positions of responsibility. This teaches them humility, and what it's like to be an employee. They also gain exposure to different methods and ideas.

It may become necessary to lay off or fire people, either for cause or simply because of poor business conditions. If a termination comes as a surprise to the person being let go, it's a sign of inattentive management. Many people can sense when they are floundering in a job, and if a person doesn't, it's up to the boss to make sure the individual knows.

Managing people is more art than science. Perhaps the biggest mistake made repeatedly by small companies is to promote their best performers to supervisory positions based on technical skills alone. Even worse, they throw them out there without a minute's training in management and supervisory skills.

Enough real problems exist out there. Don't create your own.