Vexing employee problems only an employer can understand

By Michelle van Schouwen

A search through my desktop computer’s bookmarks – or the employee handbook we developed at my last company – reveals an aspect of small business ownership that often goes unsung: The vexing and sometimes downright nutty employee situations an employer faces.

Being an employer means dealing with people. And people, by nature, bring their personalities, both the good points and the bad, including foibles and major flaws, to the workplace every day.

-Employees may bring habits they regard as cute to a workplace that does not share their viewpoint. Online articles such as “How to get an employee to stop using baby talk in the office” and “Moaners and noisy eaters among top gripes” (and countless more) assure you that you are not the only manager who’s faced odd or awkward problems with employees.

-Employees sometimes socialize outside of work, and this unfortunately also leads to situations in which they can no longer coexist peacefully in the office. I know of one case in which two employees of a small company had made an “open marriage” arrangement that one of the participants later wished to end, but that his spouse wanted to continue. This led to fireworks at the office and to the employer unhappily playing the role of mediator in an effort to get both involved employees back to a big project on which they were working together.

-For me, some of the most dreaded employee-related problems involve the truly embarrassing discussions I must lead. “Your breath is so bad it clears a room” is hardly the way you want to start a conversation, but sometimes, issues like this must be addressed, or you face the risk of harming your business. “Perhaps you could use your inside voice when in the office,” “Other employees don’t like it when you retain tissues up your nose when you have a cold,” and “It appears that you are still drunk from last night” were other fun issues to address. (Yes, of course I tried to be tactful.)

-Years back, we had a receptionist who consistently answered the phone sounding like she was crying. We had another receptionist whose violent ex-husband was searching for her, making front-office receptionist absolutely the wrong job for her. After a few years and numerous accommodations, we ended up with automated phone answering and never looked back.

-Our employee handbook grew with each edition in response to situations including employees who posted inflammatory political material in the workspace and staffers who used the conference room for lunch (which was fine) but shut the door so less-favored coworkers couldn’t join them (which was not). We had an employee who built little paper origami creatures and displayed them on her desktop, then insisted, without evidence, that other employees had stolen them. Many odd issues were eventually addressed, in some manner, in the handbook. (See my legacy post “Who needs an employee handbook anyway?”)

Being an employer can sometimes mean serving as an unwilling therapist, judge, teacher, or even parent. This isn’t generally how we employers want to spend our days, and in the end, we seek employees who are mostly sane and pleasant to have around. But people being people, we’ll have those vexing personnel situations.

It is feasible, too, that we may on occasion annoy our employees. “Yes, that is entirely possible…” (she said loudly, to herself, at the office). More on that another day.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate change mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship.


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