Personnel issues are always a bit tough, but it's best to deal with them upfront instead of letting them fester. As a manager, you need to keep an eye on troubling employee behavior, especially if it starts to have a pattern.
When you go to the doctor with a health issue, he or she will do an inventory of your symptoms to identify the underlying problem and then set a course of treatment. She does this because she knows that just treating a symptom will not cure the disease.
Managers would do well to share this philosophy. Too many times we treat personnel issues on a case-by-case basis and never consider that there may be a bigger issue at hand. And sometimes, by ignoring a bigger problem, you are setting yourself up for a bigger fall-out. In some cases, the fall-out could culminate in an EEOC case against your company.
Let's say Employee A comes to you to tell you she thinks a remark made by Employee B was sexist. You handle the situation by talking with Employee B who admits to making the remark but did not mean it as it sounded. He promises to better police himself going forward. A couple of weeks go by, and Employee A appraoches you again about a different instance in which she felt that another co-worker had slighted her.
At this point, most reasonable managers should see a red flag. Two such instances indicate that a) your workplace is a fiery pit of sexism, or b) this particular employee may be prone to misinterpreting certain actions and remarks. Either way, you need to delve deeper. Even if you think "it's just her" and leave the situation alone, she is on record for having reported these incidents. If you take no action, or take the usual band-aid action, you're not eliminating the core issue. If your organization has an HR department, it's best to get them involved as soon as you see a pattern developing.
Facing an issue upfront can work in a case when you have two employees who just don't like each other. If something like that is left to fester for too long, productivity will suffer. Let it go even longer, and the circumstances could be more dire. It's easier to sweep things under the rug, particularly when confrontation is involved, but the sooner you diagnose with the symptoms, the sooner you will find the cure to the problem.
Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.