Compassion comes naturally to most remodelers, but there’s a point at which being understanding about an employee’s personal struggles — financial straits, marital troubles, substance abuse, depression, bereavement, caregiving challenges, legal matters, etc. — can have a detrimental effect on not just that person’s job performance, but on the entire company’s cohesiveness, productivity, and profitability.

Consider remodeler “A.”

Being a supportive boss who also appreciates the scarcity of skilled craftspeople, he valued this lead carpenter, one of those wood-whisperer types whom clients adored. But he found himself the unwilling therapist when the carpenter’s marriage hit the rocks.

“He would come into my office to talk about his wife, and when I said I didn’t want to have these talks during work, he started sending me e-mails and wanting to get together after work,” A says.

Michael Austin

As the carpenter tried to patch things up at home, he let things go at work — last to arrive, first to leave, long lunches — forcing his resentful co-workers to pick up the slack. “They wanted me to make him do more or get rid of him,” A says.

“Then his wife started to call me, asking why he wasn’t making more money and coming home earlier.”

It wasn’t too long after this that A dissolved the company (he later formed another, with fewer employees). Among other reasons, he says, “I was tired of feeling like a den mother.”

Or take remodeler “B.”

Described by a colleague as “driven by being nice,” B admits that “we have done a lot of stupid things to help our people out.” When a helper got a D.U.I. and lost his license, B appointed a driver to take him to jobsites, where he did his job and then often idled on the clock while waiting for his next ride.

When another employee needed a car, B bought him “a little one” for commuting. “He started calling in sick, saying he couldn’t make it,” B says. “We finally learned he was letting his daughter use the car so she could get to work.”

Remorse? Contrition? Actually, remodeler B recalls, when caught, the employee said, “Just get me another car.”

That was B’s moment of truth. His staff had come to expect him to bail them out of their troubles. When they took him for granted, he lost money. He subsequently tightened up the rules — no more drivers, for one, and loans are now documented — but he still struggles.

“You’ve invested all that time into a person,” he says. “It seems worthwhile to do what you can to keep them.”

It’s equally worthwhile, he implicitly understands as a business owner, to give priority to the company over any one individual, no matter how sympathetic their cause.

Easier said than done.

Silent Permissions

Remodelers A and B are in good company in being burned by their own best intentions when it comes to helping employees in need.

“It’s a can of worms,” says Penny Braun, a business development coach who works with several remodeling companies. Life is messy, and like it or not, staff — and trade contractors as well — will bring their messy lives to work and into clients’ homes. The impact can be acute in small companies when the owner or key managers fail to define and/or abide by clear policies for addressing them. These are “silent permissions,” Braun says, and they can passively perpetuate performance problems.

That doesn’t mean firing somebody for being human. “I tell small-business owners to give their employees a chance,” says Susan Swan, vice president of Reach-EAP, an employee assistance program that provides counseling services to employees of 350 companies around the U.S. (See “Employee Assistance Programs” on page 35 for more about EAPs). “I think it’s the employer’s responsibility to give an employee a chance rather than terminate him [and consequently] have a hole where an employee used to be and maybe send him to your rival down the street.”

In fact, Swan notes, the weak economy can make it all but impossible to barricade personal concerns during working hours. She estimates that financial problems are the No. 3 root cause of employee distress these days, behind anxiety, which is gaining fast on depression. All are related, and all can exacerbate existing issues, such as marital tension or alcoholism. These, in turn, perpetuate the vicious cycle by playing out in ways such as irritability, safety violations, or chronic absenteeism — sometimes physically, sometimes just mentally.

And any of those behaviors can jeopardize the company as a whole.