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Disciplining Employees When Performance Takes a Hit
Published on 6/26/2015 12:00:00 AM
Disciplining Employees When Performance Takes a Hit

Most managers would prefer to never have to discipline their employees. But people are people, with their own agendas, issues and challenges. Because of this, situations can arise that require managers to confront and correct ineffective or inattentive employees.

Here’s how to handle the sticky matter of employee discipline – without the heated confrontations, hurt feelings or even threat of lawsuits.

What's the problem?

First things first with any disciplinary matter: Identify the problem. Is the issue a lack of competence or expertise? Or is behavior a concern? The former suggests an inability to meet the goals or standards of a job position. The latter refers to less than professional conduct, such as frequent tardiness, dishonesty, or insubordination.

Keep in mind that you must be able to document exactly how the employee is falling below expectations, including specific examples, before you approach him or her. Line managers should also consult with their own manager and/or HR professional before taking any action.

Know the law

To steer clear of personal and workplace liability, you must be absolutely certain you are not reprimanding the employee for something that is permitted by law or company policy. If, for example, your employee has been taking too much time off from work, make sure he or she is not entitled to FMLA coverage or any other accommodations. If the employee is eligible, learn what you need to do to comply and then follow through.

Write it up

To repeat, you must document absolutely everything concerning employee performance and discipline issues. In the eyes of the law, if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.

If you’ve been keeping a performance file on each of your direct reports, you should have a sufficient number of examples of the problem (or problems) you’re dealing with. Along with those examples, you must also provide:

  • Statement of your expectations (with goals and dates for improvement)
  • Examples of the performance or behavior problem
  • Consequences of continued failure
  • Schedule for follow-up discussions
  • Memo for the employee to sign, acknowledging he or she understands the consequences of his or her actions and the goals of the improvement plan

You should also record any other relevant details from the meeting for reference.

Back to basics: progressive discipline

Progressive discipline is a technique rooted in the belief that discipline is a learning opportunity. Each step in the process encourages change, accompanied by increasing consequences for failure. These steps may include verbal counseling (which should be documented in the employee’s file with dates and details), an initial written warning, a second written warning, and finally, if no improvement has been made and consequences have been stated, termination.

Keep in mind that progressive discipline is not appropriate in every situation (e.g., theft or violence), and company policy should allow management to address serious disciplinary matters in other, more immediate, ways, as necessary.

Follow the golden rule

Whatever your personal feelings or frustration, remember to treat all employees as you would want to be treated. Be respectful, firm, clear and consistent. Give the employee a chance to speak and ask questions. And keep all disciplinary matters private and confidential. These things may not save the employee, but they will protect you from legal risk with difficult situations.​​​

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Jaime Lizotte
Hosted by Jaime Lizotte,
HR Solutions Manager
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