In large corporations, the CEO can spend half the year on the road and operations still run efficiently. With so many layers of management in place, there are always enough leaders on site to handle anything that happens.
Small businesses don't have that luxury, though. Many small businesses and startups operate with smaller payrolls, and often have only five employees or fewer. As those businesses grow, their founders sometimes find they're on the road more often than they're in the office. I've seen and even worked for companies in which the founder spent considerable time traveling in order to secure funding, which left little time for managing operations at the home office. This meant that only one or two trusted employees were around to take care of things there.
But taking on such a huge responsibility can be daunting. The employee in charge likely appreciates being entrusted to keep an eye on things when the boss is away, but that worker may not have the years of management experience necessary to handle some of the unexpected things that can come up. It can be hard to predict how other employees will behave while the boss is away. Here are a few common coworker issues, along with tips for handling them in the boss's absence.
Even bosses with years of management experience have difficulty working out employee disputes. In a group of workers of any size, a business will occasionally see disagreements. At times, they can possibly get heated. If the same workers regularly clash, the employee who will be left in charge should take time to observe the way the boss settles disputes between the two workers and use similar, if not the same techniques.
Often simply pulling both employees into a conference room and troubleshooting resolutions to the issue can help. Ask each employee to make recommendations and agree together on the best way to solve the dispute. Use your own discretion about whether to mention the disagreement when your boss returns. If you were able to settle the situation, there may be no reason to bring it up.
All Play and No Work
When the boss leaves, it's quite possible that some workers will see it as an excuse to coast for a few days. If productivity suffers, the boss might notice, making it a bad reflection on you. Different types of laziness demand different responses, whether it's the worker who spends the morning gossiping or the team member who takes a two-hour lunch break to go shopping. Sometimes merely letting coworkers know that you aren't going to let this behavior slide is enough to curtail it. Pull each poorly-performing employee aside and speak professionally and sternly, making it clear you're acting in the capacity of employee-in-charge rather than coworker.
Violation of HR Policies
In some cases, employee behavior is in clear violation of HR policies, forcing you to take action. Even if you don't have an HR department with a traditional policies and procedures manual, there are still basic laws that apply to every business. If one of your team members actively creates a hostile work environment, for instance, not addressing that behavior could result in a complaint or a lawsuit. In many cases, though, you'll find that HR violations are more subtle, such as employees showing up a half an hour late or sneaking out a half an hour early. When that happens, look for written confirmation of your boss's policy on such behavior and discuss it with the employee. It may be tempting to keep the peace, but your boss could return early or call in and learn that employees have been violating the attendance policy unchecked. Then you're the one who may get a stern reprimand.
It's important to know how to effectively manage coworkers, especially if they choose to misbehave while company leadership isn't around. If you're the boss, make sure to have at least one or two employees on board who have some kind of prior management experience, so they can help run the show when you're not available. At the very least, hire someone who you sense has management potential. Take them under your wing and, on an ongoing basis, let them see how you discipline employees when there are disruptions. If there comes a time when employee problems arise, they'll be more able to fill the leadership vacuum.