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"Go to Your Office!"

What to do when your employees bicker like children. Plus: Taming the health care beast.
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Ask Inc.

My business has grown from 15 to 35 employees and the number of problems between workers has gotten totally out of hand. I have had as many as three people cry in my office in a single day over problems with their coworkers. I feel more like a school principal than a business manager. Currently, when workers do not get along, they are sent to my office, given a warning, and sent back to work. Any other suggestions?

Guy Berkebile
Guy Chemical Co. Inc.
Berlin, Pa.

You don't mention why you're swamped with weepy workers, but your company's recent growth spurt is a likely culprit. If you haven't defined each employee's role and drawn clear lines of reporting, adding staff almost always results in turf wars.

Rather than mediating between your employees when they behave childishly, you need to help them find adult ways to solve their problems. "Get the offenders together and tell them they need to work out their problems," says Vancouver-based management consultant John Izzo. Let them know you're there to help but will not serve as a mediator or disciplinarian. Draft a code of conduct, spelling out what constitutes professional behavior in the work place. Require all employees to sign the code, and make professional conduct part of everyone's job description -- every bit as important as, say, how many widgets people sell or produce.

Finally, before sending your workers back to their posts, you need to determine whether these "interpersonal problems" have any whiff of harassment tied to sex, race, religion, ethnicity, age, or disability. "If there are harassment issues, employers need to address them in specific ways," says Patricia Eyres, president of Litigation Management and Training Services Inc. "If they don't, they risk liability."

It boils down to this: You'll feel a lot less like a school principal if you school employees in your company's principles.

My marketing firm was recently purchased by a big, publicly traded company. Nothing has changed. I run the company as a wholly owned subsidiary and the parent leaves us alone. I almost don't understand why they bought us. How do you build a relationship with a parent after you've been acquired?

Anonymous
Boston

So you thought you'd married the strong, silent type only to discover your new spouse is an inattentive hulk? Maybe Mr. Big Publicly Traded Company bought you to establish a regional presence or to create a one-stop shop. Meanwhile, you thought that by combining your skills with Mr. Big's capital, you could both achieve goals you'd never pull off alone.

This marriage can be saved -- but only if you take action. Concentrate on the fundamentals, says Coby Sonenshine, CEO of RSM EquiCo Capital Markets LLC, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., which negotiates sales of mid-market businesses. "Often, simply exceeding financial goals is a way to get noticed" and lay a foundation for more ambitious plans in the future, he says. Think about how your firm fits into the broader strategy of the parent, and set up a meeting with your contact there. "The point is not to say, 'You promised and you didn't ... ' It's to say, 'We have some ideas on how to add value to your company through our activities," says management consultant Larraine Segil.

And remember, it could be a lot worse. In most cases, new parents micromanage their acquisitions to death. It may be that Mr. Big is leaving you alone because he thinks the world of you. On the other hand, it pays to remember that after Billy Joel sang "I love you just the way you are," he left that wife for a supermodel.

Providing health care has become a monstrous problem for my 110-employee IT firm. Year after year, we have double-digit cost increases, some of which we have to pass on to employees. I want my workers to think of the program as a benefit, not a punishment. Is there some middle ground?

Randy Pritzker
Omicron Consulting
Philadelphia

Slaying the health care monster may not be possible. But there are ways to keep the beast from devouring your company.

Here's one: When renewing your company's plan, ask your insurer for a claims-paid report, which tells you which benefits were used and by how many employees. Using this information, tighten up your plan by eliminating or curtailing benefits not being used. "Twenty percent of the people use 80% of the benefits," says Jack Tilson, senior vice president at Tilson HR in Greenwood, Ind. "The remaining 80% of your employees are funding the 20% who are driving the costs of your premiums." Your insurer can help you design a plan that shifts some costs to the employees who use the plan the most.


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Stumped by a thorny business problem? Let Inc. help. Send your questions to AskInc@inc.com. We'll consult with experienced entrepreneurs and savvy advisers, folks who've been where you are and figured out what works and what doesn't. If you don't like what we have to say -- well, you can tell us that, too.



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