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Effective Employee Discipline
by Barbara Garro

When an employee does something right, applaud. When an employee does something wrong, act to address unacceptable behavior.

Even when you take the time to hire well and keep professional personnel files documenting each employee’s strengths and needs for improvement, ongoing discipline still must be expected.

Lateness, absenteeism, unproductive on-the-job time, and addictive behavior are four of an employer’s biggest problems. Most managers find it difficult to effectively discipline. That results in letting employee rule infraction situations reach the intolerable stage. And it sends the wrong message to long-time loyal employees and new hires.

Most employees who take off from work are preoccupied with some situation that is keeping them from their jobs, not how their employer is getting along without them. If owners, supervisors and managers communicate an appreciation of the role each employee has within its company, individual employees may see how their behavior impacts the entire company.

Your employees need a sense that when they are not on the job, late to work or exhibiting poor work habits, they are taking the rest of their fellow workers and their company down. Reinforcement of each employee’s contribution as well as your personal practice model of promptness and dependability can make a big difference in your employees’ reliability. People who feel needed and part of the team are usually less apt to exhibit poor work habits.

Still, when you know employees need discipline, you may hesitate because you wonder about the right way to go about taking appropriate action. (Employees who belong to unions and their employers already know the disciplinary guidelines that must be followed.)

When you have a Progressive Disciplinary Policy in place, management and employees get on the same page. Employees know they will be held accountable to acceptable standards of on-the-job behavior. When an employee moves into unacceptable territory, management takes these expected actions:

1. Management gives its employee notice that recent attendance, driving record, other behavior history is unsatisfactory and must be improved. Clearly state exactly what improvement must be achieved in what period of time.

2. Written notice is given if the improvement required during the stated period did not meet the acceptable level.

3. Suspension is enforced if written notice has not produced improvement.

4. Termination is the result if no improvement is evident after the prior 3-step process.

Beyond general policy guidelines, here are SIX STEPS TO DISCIPLINARY SUCCESS:

1. Fact-Finding: Review the employee’s overall record. Define the current problem/s in performance. Seek out the causes. Look for ways to explain how the behavior affects overall department productivity and customer service. Investigate how long each problem has continued.

2. Set a Meeting Time: Meet as soon after setting the date as possible. The pressure of the upcoming meeting could have a negative effect on job performance. Ideally, this meeting should take place outside of working hours, if possible.

3. Meet with the Employee: Remember, it is the behavior that is unacceptable, not the employee. Be direct and to the point. State the offending behavior, along with its productivity consequences. Present as much documentation as possible. Then, be quiet, to give the employee reaction time. You may see some anger/guilt/fear-based emotions.

4. Ask for the Employee’s Improvement Suggestions: Listen for self-correcting solutions. If appropriate, ask the employee to come back with a plan of action.

5. Clearly State What You Want to Happen: In definite terms, let the employee know what you expect to happen within what time frame.

6. Follow Up: This includes not only monitoring, but also appropriate praise for progress. When you follow through with monitoring, you are able to solve current problems and prevent similar problems in the future.

The disciplinary processes suggested can work with any type of employee disciplinary problems. Employees need to know what is expected within what time frame. Failure of the employee to affect the necessary behavior changes becomes readily apparent to you and your employee. If these rehabilitation efforts fail, the firing process tends to be less shocking and stressful.

When firing becomes necessary, you have a right to be concerned about time-consuming wrongful termination lawsuits. The greatest challenge to an employer is proving Fair Investigation and Equal Treatment. So fly-off-the-handle and one-strike-you’re-out firings “could come back to bite you,” as my Pop would say.

Here are seven tests outlined by Laurence P. Corbett at a seminar sponsored by the National Employment Law Institute:

1. Notice: The rules and consequences of violating them must be made clear to employees by means of posted notice and other forms of communication. Employees have a right to know what is expected of them.

2. Reasonableness: The rules must be reasonable in themselves and must be applied reasonably. Employees are entitled to equal treatment under the rules.

3. Investigation: If an employee is accused of violating a rule, there must be a prompt investigation. Employees need to know they are responsible for what they do or what they fail to do.

4. Fair Investigation: The investigation must afford an employee due process.

5. Proof: The charge and proof must be consistent and based upon facts, not opinions or unsupported conclusions.

6. Equal Treatment: The employer must avoid favoritism and apply sanctions consistently among all employees.

7. Penalty: Disciplinary action must reasonably fit the offense.

Remember, each disciplinary action you take toward an employee will likely be actively watched by fellow employees. The more objective, respectful and fair you can be when employees move into bad behavior, the better chance you have of retaining your best employees.