Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

Seven Employee Warning Signs

Over-stressed workers aren't just bad for morale, they could be bad for business. Here's how to deal with problem employees.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Thanks to recent economic woes, many people are struggling to keep their heads above water -- both personally and professionally. At work, they're likely doing the job of two or three people as employers seek productivity gains. Or maybe they’re worried about another round of layoffs. On the home front, concerns about foreclosures or even putting enough food on the table may be very real.

Such stressors may be bumping up problems in the workplace. Although many warning signs go unchecked amid the hectic pace of business, owners who keep a sympathetic eye on employees will be better prepared to manage issues that come up or even prevent them entirely.

Here are seven warning signs of problem employees and what to do about them:

Warning sign: Yelling, harsh language, bullying

What it can signal: Harassment

What to do: If owners or managers witness or learn about behavior ranging from insensitive remarks to creating a hostile work environment, it’s important to act on it right away. Describe the unwanted behavior and specify the consequences if it continues. Planned, periodic meetings, such as weekly team meetings or quarterly performance reviews, can also help managers stay in the loop about what's going on with employees and allow them to solve problems should issues arise.

Warning sign: Poor work quality, lack of results, avoiding responsibility, reduced productivity

What it can signal: Performance issues

What to do: Sit down with the employee and develop an improvement plan -- making sure to include detailed goals. The plan should also include a timeline for completion. If the employee does not meet the standards set, then disciplinary action, up to warnings and including termination, needs to be considered.

Warning sign: Arriving late, leaving early, taking longer breaks, calling in sick more often

What it can signal: Lack of morale, motivation or engagement

What to do: If this situation is isolated to just one employee, have a face-to-face discussion to identify the cause. If it's happening across a department or the entire company, consider conducting an anonymous survey to uncover the root causes. A lack of leadership, deficient training and inefficient processes, among other things, can have a significant impact on motivation.

Warning sign: Sporadic attendance, prolonged or frequent disappearances, missed deadlines, erratic behavior, on-the-job injuries, reduced productivity

What it can signal: Substance abuse

What to do: Address the work performance and attendance problems, and set clear expectations. If your company offers an employee assistance program, an employee benefit program aimed at helping workers cope with personal problems that can negatively impact their work performance or health, offer that up immediately. Also, if the company has a drug-free workplace policy, inform the employee of it. If the behavior continues, the disciplinary process should begin.

Warning signs: Working late into the night without cause, shaving or brushing teeth in the office restroom, sleeping at his or her desk, disengagement from colleagues

What it can signal: Personal issues at home

What to do: Raise concerns with the employee in an empathetic manner, describing the observable behavior and providing a friendly reminder of what's appropriate workplace behavior. Express concern. If your company has an employee assistance program, offer it for help. Consider suggesting time off to work things out.

Warning sign: Aggressiveness toward employees or management

What it can signal: Potential for workplace violence

What to so: Whether it’s a threat or action, aggression has to be stopped immediately. This situation calls for extreme measures to protect other workers. If the need is immediate, call the police. Put in place mandatory counseling with a requirement that a therapist is the one to clear an employee to return to work.

Warning signs: Uncharacteristic isolation from others, expressing feelings that life is meaningless, giving away possessions, neglecting appearance and hygiene, sudden deterioration of work performance, talk about “getting one’s affairs in order”

What it can signal: Severe depression, suicidal thoughts

What to do: The warning signs for suicide are not usually obvious, and the above list is far from exhaustive. An employee’s co-workers are usually the first to notice something is amiss. If there’s any concern that an employee has the potential to do harm, make a mandatory referral to an employee assistance program, if your company has one, or another professional to help provide the counseling he or she may need.

If an employer notices any of these signs, the first step should be to take the employee aside, and in a one-on-one environment, ask “Is everything OK?” Often a simple gesture of care and concern is enough to start a conversation and begin to understand what’s going on with that employee.


Burton Goldfield

Written By

Burton Goldfield is president and CEO of San Leandro, Calif.-based TriNet, an HR outsourcing partner to small businesses. He is responsible for setting TriNet's overall corporate strategy and providing guidance regarding its human capital offerings.