Discipline in the workplace is tricky. Traditionally, there’s a scale of consequences for poor performance or bad behavior, starting with verbal and written warnings and leading up to termination.
Of course, there’s acute behavior that should never be tolerated in the workplace and must be dealt with accordingly. For less serious offenses, the problem I have with punishment is it rarely solves the issue at hand. It simply generates fear and does little to help the individual improve. And let’s face it: Most of the time, disciplinary write-ups are just stepping stones to justify a termination of employment, not an attempt to fix a situation. Talk about setting up your team for success!
Perhaps there’s a better way. Let's “be kind and rewind” to some employment fundamentals and see what we can do to avoid the need for discipline in the first place, and how to handle it in a more productive way when we can’t.
Provide Ongoing Policy Training
A professionally crafted company handbook is a great thing. However, after the employee receives it, it’s often tossed into a drawer (or worse), never to be seen again. Then an issue comes up, and he’s responsible for knowing everything in the book because he signed it eight years ago.
Is that fair? No. A company needs to provide ongoing training in all its policies and procedures, from sales to sexual harassment. You wouldn't provide sales training on the first day of a new hire’s employment and never speak of it again, would you?
Create the Right Culture
When an employee violates a rule or isn't pulling his weight, look to the pillars of your workplace culture to help him. For example, you might have a conversation about how one cornerstone of your company culture is collaboration, and how his specific behavior works against it. The goal is a positive conversation in which you talk about how other people in the organization worth through their difficulties, and he can, too.
Focus on Fixing the Problem
I know you’ve heard this before: You need to document all disciplinary action. Every issue should be carefully recorded, and then dated and signed by the employee and his supervisor. Why? Because we’ve been trained to believe we’ll need this information in five years to fire that person!
Rather than just focus on documentation, figure out how you’re going to help the employee with whatever occurred. Work on fixing the root of the issue rather than building a case for termination. Instead of acting like a parent scolding a child, work together with the common goal to solve the trouble. An employee can’t learn to change unless he takes ownership of the problem and the solution.
Come up with a professional-development plan to help the employee get back on track. Then, you must both commit to a solution and follow through. This shows the employee you’re serious about the change in his behavior and you advocate his growth. Any lack of follow-through will only allow the situation to worsen or occur again. It’ll also show how little importance you place on company rules.
Of course, all this assumes there was no egregious activity on behalf of the employee. If a team member does something illegal, threatens the safety of others or engages in a serious breach of policy, these are grounds for immediate termination.
Communicate Fairly and Openly
We’re all adults. While you might sometimes feel like the only adult in the room, it’s essential to continue behaving like one. In any situation where there’s a dispute or bad behavior, always take the high road.
Part of this is ensuring the employee has a chance to tell his side of the story. Let him express how he feels and try to put yourself in his shoes. You don’t need to have empathy for his behavior, but you do need to respect the process of getting to the bottom of it. Make sure that process is fair for all parties, and don't let your personal feelings cloud your judgment. This can be difficult if yours is a small company, as emotions can run deep. Remember, you have an obligation to investigate and understand the root of the problem.
Then? Schedule coaching sessions with the employee to help him understand what happened and how to improve. Be clear about the purpose of the sessions. He needs to know his behavior violated a company guideline and how he can correct his behavior. You have to clearly deliver the message: This is inappropriate, but here’s how we’re going to fix it.
Be Prepared to Terminate
Even with all the coaching in the world, there are times when an employee’s behavior doesn't improve. Then it’s time for him to go.
When terminating a team member, it’s essential to be respectful and do it in a way that aligns with your culture. Think it through and be prepared. When the time comes, have all the employee’s information available, including any problems that occurred and the actions that were taken. Keep this interaction short, as it’s tense and emotional for everyone involved. The meeting should be no more than 10 minutes. Anything longer and emotions might get heated.
Don’t start the discussion with small talk or in a light-hearted manner. Call the employee in and say, “This isn't going to be a good meeting.” That sets the tone for the severe nature of the conversation. State the reason he’s being terminated. This isn't a time to talk about everything; it’s like ripping off band-aid—do it quick! Provide any information the employee needs to know, such as when he’ll receive is final paycheck. Allow him to collect his personal belongings and say your good-byes. Once he’s left the property, change the locks.
Embrace the Responsibility
As a company leader, you hold an enormous responsibility for your team. You control their livelihood! It can be a lot to bear.
The goal is to guide every employee to success from the start, so you can avoid poor performance or bad behavior from ever occurring. If you do need to engage in a formal disciplinary action, it should never be a surprise. If you’re regularly coaching and talking about issues as they come along, it won’t be. Finally, when a situation evolves to the point of termination and you have done your job, the employee will be leaving better off than when he started, and you’ll have learned some important lessons, too.
Rick Beal is co-founder of The Atomic Storage Group, a third-party management and consulting organization. To contact him, e-mail email@example.com or stay up-to-date with all his publications and speaking engagements at www.linkedin.com/in/storagerick. For more information, visit www.atomicstoragegroup.com.