I'm getting to be an old guy, and maybe I am old-school, but having character and being trustworthy is a skill I cherish.

I truly believe not doing business with people of questionable character has contributed heavily to my success. One definition of character is the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. However, defining good character is not as easy as it might seem. Individuals are not perfect, and many factors contribute to one’s life outlook and decision making.

Sometimes what may appear to be a character flaw may really be a medical issue.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) tells us that based on government statistics, one in five adults in the U.S. (more than 46 million) experience some type of mental illness within any given year. Of course, many of these people with more serious problems are homeless, in prison or unable to hold a job. Yet many are also your employees. 

There is a vast spectrum of mental illnesses, and many employees have learned to cope with their issues. Discrimination against illness is unacceptable, so dealing with mental illness can be a tricky situation. When confronting such a situation, always seek legal counsel from a qualified labor attorney. With that said, dealing with the situation early and enforcing workplace rules is a necessity regardless of the cause. How do you determine if you are dealing with a worker who merely has a difficult or bad attitude versus someone who is mentally ill? An employee assistance program can be helpful, but most small businesses don’t provide or have easy access to such a program.

However, I think good management helps regardless of the cause. Don’t ignore the problem — address inappropriate behavior early and consistently. Sometimes employee behavior grows worse because, as a manager or owner, you do not enjoy addressing the problem and it grows worse over time. Avoiding the inevitable only makes for a bigger and nastier problem.

Your role as an employer is to manage behavior, not try to change people. Remember in middle school how everybody behaved in a certain teacher’s class? He or she didn’t change pupils’ personalities, but rather controlled and monitored their behavior. Little “Johnny Hellion” wanted to misbehave, he just knew better as it would not be tolerated. Controlling and monitoring behavior is a realistic goal, changing people’s personalities is not.

Many employees have problems. They can either bring those problems to work or they can win at work and do a good job. Make clear what is expected and help the person win at work. Holding employees accountable for their actions is your responsibility. I realize there’s a huge employee shortage, so your concern is if you let people go, you can’t replace them. Allowing employees to hold you hostage destroys your company culture and is unfair to good employees.

What are some of the signs of poor character? Start by understanding that if you’re dead by manslaughter or murder, you’re still dead. If an employee’s behavior is unacceptable, the cause really doesn’t matter, it needs to be corrected. Some common character flaws that are very difficult to deal with include:

Not owning their part. When the employee constantly exhibits a behavior that mistakes are always someone else’s fault, it can be almost impossible to correct the situation, as he or she believes they are never responsible. Everybody makes mistakes, and not owning up to them is a fatal flaw.

Having a sense of entitlement. If the person constantly exhibits “it’s all about me” behavior, it can be difficult to deal with. Ultimately, there is a sense of distrust from everyone around them.

Liars and thieves. Many people may steal a pencil from the office now and then or tell a little white lie to avoid conflict or embarrassment. A purist might say this is totally unacceptable behavior, but again, no one is perfect. Unacceptable behavior is when people consistently cheat on their timecard or continually lie about something he or she did not do. This is a sign of a severe character flaw. When confronted, watch their response carefully and act responsibly. For example, I know an employee who stole some gas with the company credit card because they were poor when first starting with the company. She admitted she made a mistake and is now one of the senior managers.  

So, what if you have hard workers, but no one can get along with them and they are not really dishonest people? Isolate them, keep them busy and let them do their thing. Don’t place them in the mainstream since they are disruptive. Many of these folks are good craftspeople, they are just impatient and intolerant of others. 

Being an owner or manager is never easy, but it is your responsibility to lead the company and manage behavior.