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The Four Steps to Effectively Disciplining an Employee

 


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When you have an employee who is underperforming for any reason, you must quickly and honestly discuss this with that employee.  This discussion will be more easily directed if you have a solid, up-to-date “Job Description" document for this employee's position, which has been reviewed at length with the employee and submitted to the Human Resources Department for their permanent file.  If employees haven't been given clear direction in their jobs, it's hard for us as managers to understand our expectations.  (But. . . the subject of a good “Job Description" document and how critical it can be in directing an employee's performance will be the subject of an upcoming article. ) So, we'll assume for the sake of this article that your employee has a valid, up-to-date “Job Description" that accurately outlines exactly what the company's expectations are for him/her.  And let's also say that this same employee is not meeting one or more of their duties outlined on the Job Description.  It is time for you to issue a correction to this employee - but which route to take? 

First, let me say that out of all the discipline situations you will be in as a manager, I would daresay only about 20% of them result from a very flagrant and specific action the employee has taken that very clearly violates one of their expected duties and activities.  About 80% of the time, the reason for discipline will NOT be clear-cut, unfortunately, but rather an amalgam of different things adding up to a negative performance.  A few examples of what I mean:

  •          You inherited a department which has a long-time employee with a terrible attitude.  He brings everyone else on the team “down" with his complaining and negative energy.  You are certain you could improve your teams’ productivity if you could either reform or terminate this one employee.  

  •          You have a passive/aggressive employee who goes through periods of perfect behavior, and then will lapse into 1-2 month periods of utter failure in one particular area (i. e. , coming in late for work, too many sick days, missed assignments, etc. )

  •          You hired someone for your team who has turned out to be an office bully.  When confronted about his bullying, he refers to his “aggression" and “candor" as just being his style, and that everyone else is too sensitive.  He claims that no one else has ever complained about it except you.

  •          You have an employee who is really well-liked by everyone in the company, who truly gives 110% to her job, is ALWAYS punctual and on-time with assignments - but is just not catching on to the subject matter material of your industry AT ALL, and it is causing her to make mistakes in her documentation.  You've already had 2 different people retrain this employee, and she just doesn't seem to be “getting it".

    In these murky situations, you must work hard to make sure you are able to set expectations for their behavior in addition to their actual job performance.    It may be that the “bully" on your team is also your highest performer - but they need to understand that their attitude and behavior with the rest of the team is just as important as the high productivity behavior, and that when one of those two things is going badly, it doesn't matter how good the other thing is (ok, folks in sales with specific commission structures might actually disagree with me here, but you get the idea).   

    You also must establish a precedent of “correction" with this employee such that it doesn't come as a complete shock to them.  For example, don't give them really high marks on their annual performance review, and then 2 months’ later issue them a warning on their bullying.  

    Ok - so getting back to the heart of the matter, there are so many different ways of approaching employee performance correction - from “verbal warnings" to “performance improvement plans" - so, I'm going to share with you what I believe to be the most effective chain of events that should take place when disciplining an employee.

    1.         Step 1 should always be a verbal conversation with the employee.  This is a casual conversation that doesn't produce any documentation, and is - for now - just between you and the employee.  Here are the things you must accomplish in this verbal conversation:

    a.        Be very direct and clear about the behavior or work performance area that is not meeting your standards.  The employee might be surprised, because they thought they were doing everything just right.    Don't sugar-coat the issue - speak in plain terms.  

    b.        Make sure to have a minimum of 3 tangible examples you can provide this employee to back up your discussion, so that even if the employee doesn't AGREE with you, they can't say they don't UNDERSTAND.  If possible, reference either in your employee handbook or in the employee's job description where these items are addressed.  

    c.        Articulate the time duration under which you expect improvement.  Whether immediate, by tomorrow, or in 90 days really depends on the level of seriousness of the infraction and your best judgment.  But whatever the case is, be clear about when this is to take place.

    d.       This step is very important - make informal notes on the meeting that - for now - only you know about.  Even if you tear off a piece of paper, scribble 3-4 sentences to help you remember key points of how the meeting went, and then toss it into a “miscellaneous" file in your desk drawer, you are dramatically improving your chance for recall IF you have to take further disciplinary actions.  If it ends up being a one-time thing with an otherwise high performing employee, you can throw away that hand-written note after a few months.

    2.        Step 2 should result in a formal “first written warning" to the employee.  In many companies, this is known as a “Performance Improvement Plan", and it is really a more detailed, written version of the verbal conversation you already had.  Depending on the severity of the situation, I usually only had myself and maybe the team lead in the office when issuing the first written warning.  You will want to communicate the four points outlined above in this meeting, but you now will put them in writing.  The first written warning should be very clear about the consequences of not reaching the desired improvement.    I always required my employees to sign the written warnings, with accompanying text on the form that says the employee doesn't necessarily agree or disagree with the contents, but that they have read it and a copy of it has been presented to them.  This should be a permanent document that gets placed in the employee's permanent record in Human Resources.

    3.        Step 3 would be a “second written warning".  Again, depending on the severity of the infraction, you might choose to just skip this step and go directly to step 4.  In this step, you will again document all of the items mentioned in #1 above, and this time, it should be made clear that immediate improvement is required, and the consequences of not improving will be termination for cause.  This warning should be conducted in the presence of the Human Resource officer, preferably in their office.  This should be a permanent document that gets placed in the employee's permanent record in Human Resources.

    4.        Step 4 - termination.

    The biggest mistake a manager can make is not addressing performance problems quickly enough.  Although never a pleasant job, make a commitment to yourself as a manager that you will not postpone that which needs to be done: not only is that the best thing for your department, but it's really the most fair thing you can do for the wayward employee in the long run.

    Phyllis R. Neill is the architect of the widely publicized and fast-growing website http://www.shementor.com a communications portal created to support awareness of the issues faced by today's professional female business executives, and to provide advice in general to executive women. Her 20 years in executive management have taught her a thing or two about how to manage businesses - and how to treat people. Throughout her distinguished career, Phyllis has served in executive leadership positions for a variety of different business sectors, including computer software, healthcare IT, advertising, and media ratings, just to name a few. Phyllis’ recently launched blog, SheMentor's Musings, is helping women across the country get desperately needed advice that cannot be found elsewhere, and at the same time exchange information on hard-to-find issues facing the executive woman in the workforce today.

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