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Ways to Prevent Staff Discipline and Termination in Self-Storage and What to Do When You Can’t

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Staff discipline can be unpleasant but necessary. Handled correctly, it’s an opportunity for team improvement. Learn ways to prevent the need for corrective action in your self-storage operation and how to proceed when it becomes inevitable.

The most unfortunate part of being a self-storage supervisor is having to occasionally discipline or even terminate employees. The goal is to avoid reaching a point of no return with a team member, but unfortunately, corrective action is sometimes inevitable. Let’s examine some strategies to prevent the need for punishment and the best ways to move forward if an employee does violate your policies and procedures.

Prevention

Discipline can be unpleasant and disruptive to your self-storage business, so why not try to prevent reprimands and firings altogether? The best way to do this is through the following four strategies.

Establish policies and procedures. Clarifying expectations and setting workplace standards are important parts of mitigating staff issues. Even if you have just one employee, establishing a set of policies and procedures is critical to measuring performance.

Create an operations manual and employee handbook. The latter should outline what your company expects and accepts from staff as well as identify terminable offenses. There are numerous industry resources to help you cull this material, including attorneys, consultants and suppliers who specialize in self-storage. Once you have your guides in place, you’ll be able to point to any specific violations that occur.

Audit. Manager tasks, such as daily close and balance, petty-cash transmission, and bank deposits, should be audited regularly. This preserves honesty, maintains balance and immediately identifies issues. Modern technology allows owners to easily keep tabs on various systems, with most processes accessible online. If you have a manager who’s stealing, for example, regular auditing will typically uncover the crime within the month it occurs.

Onsite audits are also key to preventing or catching policy infractions. If possible, site visits should occur monthly, with time for an in-depth review of all operational, marketing and site inspections. Document any problems discovered. Have the manager sign the report and retain a copy.

If you have multiple sites, include each in a monthly overview report, with scores and numbers for key performance indicators like activity, income, traffic, closing ratios and delinquency. Distribute the report to every facility, allowing teams to compare their site numbers against those of the group.

Conduct performance reviews. An important part of keeping staff off the path toward discipline is providing constant feedback and mentorship. This includes setting goals and measuring performance for each employee.

Regular reviews are an excellent way to check progress, identify areas for improvement and document qualifications for raises. At least annually, have each team member complete a review of his own performance, evaluating work progress and goals. He should discuss these with his supervisor, who should also provide scores for each area.

Regularly documenting progress reduces surprises and helps quickly identify issues that need to be remedied through additional training, mentorship or other supportive measures. Regular staff communication will reduce serious policy infractions.

Train and retrain. Initial and ongoing training is a strategic way to prevent employee missteps, or correct poor decisions or actions. Not everyone will completely understand a procedure or system, so you may need to retrain someone more than once. This is why an operations manual can help staff down a path to excellence. Supplemental training can help make them feel part of the team.

Performance often improves through extra training, in which case no further action should be needed. However, there does come a point when, if an employee isn’t progressing, he may need to be moved to a different environment or position. Depending on the reasons for the continuing deficiency, a verbal or written warning may be warranted. Consult prior written records of any disciplinary action to make decisions regarding the employee’s abilities, attitude, aptitude and competence.

Discipline

Depending on the severity of a work infraction, there are four main steps to disciplining an employee, according to team-collaboration website Lucidchart: verbal warning, written warning, suspension and improvement plan and, lastly, termination. The goal should be to stop the progression at the first step. Ideally, the disciplinary action should make the employer and employee comfortable with how issues are being addressed, including expectations to prevent a reoccurrence.

“Employee discipline should not be seen as a form of punishment, but as an opportunity for growth and development,” according to Process Street, a provider of business-workflow software. “If approached with the right mindset and executed correctly, it can be an effective training method that helps improve performance while establishing a safe and honest working environment for all employees.”

From my three decades in the self-storage business, I can tell you most owners and operators don’t follow a formal disciplinary process. Many are entrepreneurs at heart and prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. The problem is shortcuts can leave you exposed to wrongful-termination lawsuits or, at best, disgruntled employees.

Don’t skip self-protection. It’s crucial to document your process for staff reprimands, disciplinary action and termination. If you need to advance to a written warning, it should include:

  • A clear statement of the problem
  • Ways to fix the issue
  • Clarification of employer expectations
  • A clear timeline for meeting those expectations
  • Possible consequences of inaction

I recommend using a formal written-warning form that includes:

  • The employee’s name and title
  • The date the warning is issued
  • A list of violations and any previous warnings (including date issued and by whom)
  • A checklist of common infractions (poor attendance, carelessness, insubordination, poor work quality, theft, in appropriate computer use, certain illegal activities, etc.), with a spot for “other” that can be filled in as necessary
  • A written statement from the employer regarding what’s occurred
  • A section that allows the employee to agree or disagree with the assessment and provide comments
  • A checklist of potential actions to be taken, such as probation (length), suspension (length and paid or unpaid), demotion, a reduction or loss of income (type, amount and duration)
  • A statement of expected consequences if performance doesn’t improve

The form should be signed and dated by the employee and supervisor. If the employee refuses to acknowledge the warning, that should be noted on the form with the supervisor’s signature and date. Documentation is vital to protecting your self-storage business.

Termination

Every self-storage operator needs a structured process to set clear expectations and hold employees accountable for performance and behavioral issues. This can help ensure a smooth transition during those rare occasions when a person must be terminated.

It’s never fun to fire someone, so bring a calm mind, detailed documentation and respect to the discussion. If you handle the situation in a professional manner, the employee should leave feeling he’s been treated fairly and in accordance to the law, and that he was given every opportunity to improve.

Similar to a written warning, create a formal employee-termination notice. It should include the employee’s name and title, date of termination, and a list of violations and previous warnings. Include an employer statement explaining in detail the reasons for termination. I also recommend including a statement referencing your employee handbook and a declaration to immediately return company-owned property like keys, uniforms, cellphone, laptops, etc. An explanation about final compensation and instructions regarding health benefits is also helpful.

If you have good operational systems in place at your self-storage facility, terminations will be the exception, not the rule. Rather than being presented as a punishment, discipline should be framed as a chance to learn to grow. I like to call it T2R4 (train, test, reward, retrain, retest, reward). If approached with the right attitude and documentation, this approach can be an effective way to improve team performance.

M. Anne Ballard is president of training, marketing and developmental services for Universal Storage Group and the founder of Universal Management Co. She’s past president of the Georgia Self Storage Association and has served on the national Self Storage Association’s board of directors. She’s also participated in the planning, design and operation of numerous storage facilities. For more information, call 770.801.1888; visit www.universalstoragegroup.com.

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