There’s no need to catalog once again the incredible strain and stress in today’s workplace. It’s been decades since there’s been so much pressure on employees in industries across the board.

How are HR departments adjusting to this new reality? Often, not as well as they’d like. Because HR workers themselves are overloaded and everyone seems more frazzled to some degree, normally eagle-eyed HR staffers may fail to see real problems developing with employees.

Burton Goldfield of Entrepreneur.com argues that it’s a worse time than ever to let these warning signs go unnoticed. What seems like an isolated incident can quickly become a pattern that can have disastrous consequences for any company.

Goldfield groups the telltale signs into several categories, but there is a lot of overlap. One of the most alarming is aggressive acting out and bullying. “Whether it’s a threat or action,” he writes, “aggression has to be stopped immediately.”

Other warning signs are more subtle. Sudden performance issues, reduced productivity, and poor accountability can be indications of personal problems or in a small percentage of cases, substance abuse.

Goldfield advises:

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.

Some problems that HR managers might dismiss as isolated to a “problem employee” may in fact be spreading throughout the ranks, Goldfield warns. If so, an entirely different approach may be warranted:

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.

The publication Feed & Grain offers some similar warning signs, and also lays out a suggested plan for coaching and — if necessary — disciplining problem employees. The steps laid out provide a good checklist for HR staffers, and the bottom line makes a lot of sense:

Problem behavior usually has a history. It usually develops over time and seldom from a single incident. Thus, it is your responsibility to be aware of the early warning signs and deal with the underlying causes before the situation reaches a crisis! This is very often easier said than done, but nipping this type of problem in the bud, is typically easier than when it reaches full bloom. Many people put off dealing with problem employees because the task is not particularly pleasant, only to find they have a larger problem to deal with later.

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