The Progressive Discipline Handbook
Smart Strategies for Coaching Employees
Every manager's must-read
Lisa Guerin, J.D. and Margie Mader-Clark,
January 2007, 1st Edition
For the employer who needs an effective approach to coaching and disciplining employees
In today's litigious world, managers and supervisors must ensure that when they discipline their employees, they do so fairly. Otherwise, they may end up dealing with expensive legal problems.
Fortunately, The Progressive Discipline Handbook helps prevent days in court. A complete how-to guide full of practical and legal advice, you'll find out how to:
- identify an appropriate level of discipline
- deal with employees when discipline is necessary
- correct and monitor problems
- prevent future problems
Plus, you'll get useful forms, checklists and audio dialogues, and quizzes to reinforce core lessons.
Best of all, The Progressive Discipline Handbook can be used with any progressive discipline policy already in place -- making it easy to implement. It also provides tips and strategies that help managers handle one of the most difficult parts of their jobs: Communicating with employees about discipline problems.
- Sample Disciplinary Form
- The Discipline Evaluation Checklist
Other files on CD:
- PowerPoint Presentation
- Audio Files*
*Audio files are not available with the ebook
Lisa Guerin, an editor and author specializing in employment law, is author or co-author of several Nolo books, including The Manager's Legal Handbook, Dealing with Problem Employees, The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, Workplace Investigations, Create Your Own Employee Handbook, and Nolo's Guide to California Law. Guerin has practiced employment law in government, public interest, and private practice where she represented clients at all levels of state and federal courts and in agency proceedings. She is a graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. Guerin's blog on lessons learned by employers and HR professionals on everything from hiring and firing to performance and discipline can be found at Nolo's Employment Law Blog.
Lisa's Other Pages
Margie Mader-ClarkMargie Mader-Clark has worked at the highest levels of the HR profession for more than 15 years, primarily in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley. She has experienced the power of good management -- and the devastating impact of poor management. Mader-Clark has worked with numerous companies to develop commonsense HR principles to guide their employment policies.
- What Is Progressive Discipline
- The Benefits of Progressive Discipline
- Getting Results With Progressive Discipline
- Avoiding Legal Trouble
- Who Should Read This Book
- How to Use This Book
Part I: An Overview of Progressive Discipline
1. Progressive Discipline Basics
- What a Progressive Discipline Policy Should Look Like
- How Progressive Discipline Works
- Using This Book With Your Company's Policy
2. Principles of Effective Progressive Discipline
- Principle 1: Your Goal Is Retention -- Not Termination
- Principle 2: Discipline Should Be Proportionate
- Principle 3: Have the Facts at Your Fingertips
- Principle 4: Listen to Your Employees
- Principle 5: Collaboration Is the Key to Success
- Principle 6: Be Flexible Within a Consistent Framework
- Principle 7: Some Employment Relationships Don't Work Out
3. Avoiding Legal Trouble
- Strategy 1: Don't Compromise At-Will Employment
- Strategy 2: Be Consistent
- Strategy 3: Be Objective
- Strategy 4: Don't Retaliate
- Strategy 5: Make Reasonable Accommodations for Employees With Disabilities
- Strategy 6: Be Careful When Disciplining for Absences
- Strategy 7: Deal With Dangerous Situations Right Away
- Strategy 8: Keep It Confidential
- Strategy 9: Remember: You Represent the Company
- Strategy 10: Document Everything
Build Your Skills: An Overview of Progressive Discipline
Part II: Is It Time for Discipline?
4. Identifying Potential Problems
- Knowing What to Look For: The Three Types of Employee Problems
- How to Spot Employee Problems
5. Deciding What Action to Take
- Is Discipline Appropriate?
- How Serious Is the Problem?
- Choosing the Right Response
Build Your Skills: Is It Time for Discipline?
Part III: Smart Discipline Skills
6. Why Discipline Is Hard
- Understanding Your Emotions
- Accept the Challenge
7. Smart Talk: How to Discuss a Discipline Problem With an Employee
8. Smart Ways to Deal With Difficult Employee Reactions
- Emotional Reactions
- Masking Reactions
9. Smart Documentation
- The Benefits of Documenting Discipline
- Guidelines for Effective Documentation
- Informal Documentation
- Formal Documentation, Step by Step
10. Smart Collaboration: Involving the Right People at the Right Time
- Involving Management
- Involving Human Resources
- Involving Legal Counsel
- Involving Other Employees
- Build Your Skills: Smart Discipline Skills
Part IV: The Disciplinary Steps
11. Step 1: Coaching
- What Is Coaching?
- To Coach or Not to Coach?
- Types of Coaching
- How Do You Coach?
- When Coaching Is Over
12. Step 2: Verbal Warnings
- What Is a Verbal Warning?
- When to Give a Verbal Warning
- How to Give a Verbal Warning
13. Step 3: Written Warnings
- What Is a Written Warning?
- When to Give a Written Warning
- How to Give a Written Warning
Build Your Skills: The Disciplinary Steps
Part V: If Discipline Fails
- Is It Time for Termination?
- Prepare for the Meeting
- The Termination Meeting
15. Life After Discipline
- Conduct a Process Evaluation
- Talk to Your Team
- Tell Others Who Need to Know
- Moving Forward
Build Your Skills: If Discipline Fails
A. Tools, Checklists, and Summaries
- Sample Policy Language
- Disciplinary Form
- Discipline Evaluation Checklist
- Skills Enhancement 1: Setting Expectations
- Skills Enhancement 2: Opening Discussions
- Skills Enhancement 3: Choosing Tone of Voice
- Skills Enhancement 4: Brainstorming an Action Plan
- Build Your Skills: An Overview of Progressive Discipline
- Build Your Skills: Is It Time for Discipline?
- Build Your Skills: Smart Discipline Skills
- Build Your Skills: The Disciplinary Steps
- Build Your Skills: If Discipline Fails
- Progressive Discipline Basics:Smart Summary
- Principles of Effective Progressive Discipline: Smart Summary
- Avoiding Legal Trouble: Smart Summary
- Identifying Potential Problems: Smart Summary
- Deciding What Action to Take: Smart Summary
- Why Discipline Is Hard: Smart Summary
- Smart Talk: Smart Summary
- Smart Ways to Deal With Employee Responses: Smart Summary
- Smart Documentation: Smart Summary
- Smart Collaboration: Smart Summary
- Coaching: Smart Summary
- Verbal Warnings: Smart Summary
- Written Warnings: Smart Summary
- Termination: Smart Summary
B. Sample Documentation
C. State Laws
- State Laws Prohibiting Discrimination in Employment
- State Laws That Control Final Paychecks
D. How to Use the CD-ROM
- Installing the Form Files Onto Your Computer
- Using the Word Processing Files to Create Documents
- Using PDF Files to Print Out Forms
- Using the PowerPoint Presentation
Progressive Discipline Basics
What a Progressive Discipline Policy Should Look Like............................................... 12
Verbal Warning................................................................................................................ 14
Written Warning............................................................................................................... 15
How Progressive Discipline Works.................................................................................... 16
Gather Information.......................................................................................................... 17
Assess the Severity ........................................................................................................ 18
Decide How to Respond................................................................................................ 20
Prepare to Talk to the Employee.................................................................................. 21
Meet With the Employee................................................................................................ 22
Follow Up.......................................................................................................................... 26
Using This Book With Your Company’s Policy................................................................ 26
Progressive discipline gives managers a flexible structure for handling any employee problem, from poor performance to spotty attendance to misconduct. That’s why so many companies use some form of progressive discipline to manage employees who are not meeting expectations. Because these systems vary in details, however, it can be tough to get a handle on exactly what progressive discipline is and how it works.
Although they may go by different names, all true progressive discipline systems have a few things in common:
• They offer a range of disciplinary measures to respond appropriately to employee problems.
• They are systems of proportional response, in which the severity of the discipline depends on the severity of the problem.
• They give employees a meaningful opportunity to improve when problems arise, unless the employee’s behavior is so extreme that immediate termination is required.
This chapter explains what a progressive discipline policy should look like and gives you a step-by-step guide to help you most effectively use a progressive discipline system. For those whose companies have already adopted a policy, we also provide some tips on using this book to stay safe and legal in conjunction with that policy.
What a Progressive Discipline Policy Should Look Like
Before you can begin to use a progressive discipline policy to maximize employee performance, you need to know what a good policy should include. This information will help you understand the basic tools available to you. If your company doesn’t have a written progressive discipline policy, you can use this information, and the sample policy in Appendix A, to create one.
Follow your company’s policy. We can’t say it enough times: If your company already has a progressive discipline policy that differs from the model policy we use in this book, you must adhere to your company’s policy. If you believe, after reading this book, that your company’s policy could create legal exposure, we encourage you to raise that issue with the appropriate people, such as your manager, human resources department, and/or legal counsel.
Effective progressive discipline systems offer the best of both worlds: They give managers the structure they need to treat employees consistently, with the flexibility to take unique situations and problems into account. In most progressive disciplinary systems, managers deal with first-time problems by administering a verbal coaching or warning, then escalate to more serious measures if the problem continues or the employee develops other problems. For more serious issues, the manager can start the process at a higher disciplinary level—even termination, for very significant offenses.
These are the disciplinary measures typically available in most companies’ policies (although they might go by different names):
• verbal warning
• written warning
In today’s workplace, most managers know that creating successful employees isn’t always about directing and controlling, it’s often about encouraging and developing. This process is often referred to as coaching. In this context, coaching is a manner of relating to and managing your employees to help them maximize their performance and build their skills and competencies. As such, coaching is not simply—or even primarily—a disciplinary measure, but is instead a management approach that emphasizes communication, collaboration, goal setting, mentoring, and assistance to help your employees realize their full potential.
In this book, however, we use the term “coaching” in a more limited sense, to refer to the first step of a progressive discipline system. Although you might be coaching your employees in the broader sense all the time, you are coaching under our definition only when you are using your collaborative and communication skills to correct a disciplinary problem. While it requires the same set of skills, coaching in the disciplinary system ensures specified goals are reached and gives you options to escalate discipline if they aren’t.
Considered the least harsh disciplinary measure, coaching can be used at the first sign of relatively minor trouble. The purpose of coaching is to work through and correct an action or behavior before it becomes a larger problem. Coaching is typically handled in a face-to-face meeting. Done well, coaching can nip potential problems in the bud while conveying to the employee that his or her performance and conduct matter to you and the company. You’ll find strategies and step-by-step instructions for coaching employees in Chapter 11.
Keep track of your coaching sessions. In many companies, managers are free to coach employees as many times as they wish, even on the same disciplinary issue, before they decide that the employee should formally enter the company’s progressive discipline system with an official verbal warning. The problem with this practice is that it allows for inconsistent treatment among employees, with all of the possible legal problems that this can create (see Chapter 3 for more information on the dangers of inconsistency). That’s one reason to treat coaching as a distinct step in the disciplinary process, and to document it. Although you don’t have to tell the employee you’re coaching that your conversation constitutes a form of discipline, you should make some notes on the conversation and escalate to a verbal warning if the situation doesn’t improve. (You’ll find information on documentation in Chapter 9.)
If a problem continues despite your coaching efforts, a formal verbal warning is often the next step. Typically, a manager delivers a verbal warning in a formal meeting, where the employee is told that the behavior or action is unacceptable. The term “warning” is used to communicate that there is a real problem, one which must be resolved if the employee is to get back on track. Verbal warnings differ from coaching because they are more formal. The employee is notified that he or she is being disciplined, and the incident is usually documented in the employee’s personnel file. Verbal warnings are covered in Chapter 12.
You have coached your employee and given a formal verbal warning that he or she must improve, but the problem continues. Or, an employee’s behavior is serious enough to warrant an immediate, forceful response, but not so extreme as to require termination. Providing a written warning conveys that the employee’s job is at risk unless the problem is solved. Often, company polices require the manager to involve higher management or the human resources department when giving a written warning. We cover how to prepare for, give, and document a written warning in Chapter 13.
Nothing has worked. All attempts to correct the employee’s performance or behavior have failed. The employee’s unacceptable actions, despite numerous warnings, continue. Or, the employee has done something so egregious that immediate termination is appropriate (for example, stealing from the company or coworkers, or committing violence).
Termination of employment isn’t really a disciplinary measure: It represents the failure of the disciplinary process. If discipline doesn’t work despite your best efforts to help the employee improve, you know that there’s nothing more you can do. We discuss terminations in more detail in Chapter 14.
Why Disciplinary Policies Should Be in Writing
Some employers tell us that they don’t want to adopt a written progressive discipline policy and distribute it to their employees. Usually, companies go this route because they fear lawsuits by employees claiming that they are entitled to every step in a written policy and can’t be fired unless the company proceeds through all the steps.
However, refusing to write down a progressive discipline policy won’t protect a company from this type of claim. If a company uses a progressive discipline system—even if it never puts its policy in writing—the employee could argue that the employer’s practices created an implied contract. (For more on implied contracts, see Chapter 3.) In this situation, the employee could use the employer’s actions against it to argue that, because the employer always applied particular disciplinary measures to particular offenses, the employee was contractually entitled to the same treatment.
A properly written disciplinary policy will guard against this type of lawsuit by reiterating that the company is an at-will employer and reserves the right to discipline as it sees fit. The sample policy we provide in Appendix A demonstrates how to both convey the company’s intent to provide progressive discipline and reserve the company’s right to terminate employment at will.
How Progressive Discipline Works
Many companies either have a progressive discipline policy in place or follow one in practice. And it’s not hard to see why: Used properly, progressive discipline gives managers the tools they need to make fair, consistent, and legally defensible disciplinary decisions. Because it is based on communication and collaboration, true progressive discipline also helps employees improve—the ultimate goal of any disciplinary system.
“All well and good,” you might be thinking, “but how do I do it?” How do you decide what type of discipline is appropriate in any given situation? And how do you deliver that disciplinary message in a way that produces actual improvement?
When you confront a situation that might call for discipline, follow these steps:
1. Gather information. Before you act, make sure you know what happened.
2. Assess the severity. Consider how the problem is affecting the employee, the team, and the company.
3. Decide how to respond. Choose the appropriate disciplinary measure, based on the severity and frequency of the problem and how your company has addressed similar issues in the past.
4. Prepare to talk to the employee. Plan your disciplinary meeting, including what you will say and how you will say it.
5. Meet with the employee. Talk about what has happened and collaborate to create an improvement plan.
6. Document. Make a written record of the discipline imposed and the improvement plan.
7. Follow up. Check back in to make sure the employee is meeting his or her commitments.
Before you jump in to take action, you have to understand what is really going on. Some situations are relatively clear cut—for example, an employee has been showing up late to work, missed a deadline, or failed to follow required safety procedures. You might not know all of the reasons for the employee’s actions until you talk to him or her, but you do know that a rule was violated or a performance standard wasn’t met, and that the employee is responsible. In this scenario, you can move on to assessing the severity of the problem.
Other situations are trickier to untangle, especially if more than one employee is involved. If, for example, your team is not meeting its performance goals, you might not know exactly who or what caused the problem. Or, if one employee accuses another of misconduct (like harassment or threats of violence), you may need to gather more information before deciding what to do. If you can’t figure out who is responsible for a problem, you might need to investigate before you take action. (For detailed information and step-by-step instructions for investigating, see Workplace Investigations, by Lisa Guerin (Nolo), available for electronic download at www.nolo.com.)
Don’t just respond to problems—prevent them. The best managers know that they can’t get the most out of their teams just by stepping in when disaster strikes. Instead, they continuously manage employee performance by communicating frequently with their teams, giving regular feedback, and providing the resources necessary for success. You’ll find tips and techniques for this type of performance management in Chapter 4.
Assess the Severity
Before you decide whether or what type of discipline is in order, you need to know how the problem is affecting you, your teams, and your company. There are several important reasons for doing this:
• The disciplinary measure you impose should depend, in large part, on how serious the problem is. If the employee’s behavior is having or could have a direct and significant impact on the company’s ability to get out its products or serve its customers, a higher level of discipline may be in order.
• It will be easier to leave your emotions at the door and make objective, fair disciplinary decisions if you focus on the effect of the employee’s behavior—and not on your own anger or disappointment. It’s easy to let negative feelings enter into your decisions, especially if the employee’s actions have undermined your authority or caused you to miss your own performance goals.
• Knowing how the problem is affecting the team and the company—and having a few examples ready when you meet with the employee—communicates the importance of the issue and gives the employee the proper context within which to understand the problem. It demonstrates that the employee is a crucial member of the team and that his or her performance plays an important role in the company’s success. And it will help both of you troubleshoot the solutions you come up with, to make sure that they address both the employee’s concerns and the needs of the company.
Example: You sit your accounts payable clerk down and say, “Your lack of attention to detail is causing us to have to double check your work, and making our customers suspect the integrity of their invoices. This is costing the company money and time, and we need to figure out a way to fix it.” His first response is to ask for more information: What lack of detail? Who has had to go over the work, in which accounts? Which customers are upset?
Because you took the time to consider the impact of the clerk’s problem, you are armed with a few examples, such as, “The Jones Company has found errors in their invoices twice. This means that the sales rep, Tom, has had to spend his time on the phone with them assuring them that we will correct the invoice and are not charging them for product they didn’t order. This embarrasses our company and hurts our reputation, but it also hurts our future business. Because Tom’s time with them is limited, this means we’re using it to correct a problem we shouldn’t have had instead of giving Tom the opportunity to sell them more product. Long-term, persistent errors like this make the company look as though it doesn’t take its billing or its invoicing seriously—sending the signal that clients shouldn’t take our invoices seriously, either.”
Once the clerk understands that his performance actually endangered the company’s relationship with a customer, wasted a coworker’s time, and squandered a chance for the company to make more money, he can see how important it is for him to do his job right—and will better understand why you feel the need to intervene. Now, you can begin to collaboratively find a solution.
When the measure you take is based on how an employee’s problems are affecting the company, and you focus your corrective efforts on changing that situation, you and your employee will be on the same page: Working to improve the situation, rather than arguing about what happened and whether it’s really a problem. The employee will see that you are acting fairly and will be less likely to respond with defensiveness or anger. You’ll find specific strategies for assessing the impact of an employee’s performance or behavior problems in Chapter 5.
Decide How to Respond
The whole point of progressive discipline is proportionate response: In other words, the disciplinary measure you choose should reflect how serious the problem is. If, for example, your employee has been late to the office one time, a written warning is probably too harsh. A simple coaching session—even a brief chat at the employee’s desk—will probably do the trick.
When trying to figure out how serious a particular problem is—and therefore, what type of disciplinary measure to impose—there are several factors to consider:
• The effect of the behavior. Understanding how an employee’s problem affects other employees, customers, and business opportunities is fundamental to deciding how to respond.
• The frequency of the behavior. When one employee misses a single deadline after years of on-time delivery, it is less worrisome than when another is routinely late with assignments. A repeat problem means that the employee doesn’t understand your expectations, doesn’t know how to meet them, doesn’t have the resources to meet them, or simply has entrenched behaviors—like procrastination, in the case of the employee who keeps missing deadlines—that must be improved.
• Disciplinary history. If you’ve already met with the employee about the issue and come up with a reasonable action plan that hasn’t been executed, tougher discipline will be necessary.
• The legality of the behavior. If the employee has done something illegal, such as harassed or threatened another employee, misrepresented the company’s financials to shareholders, or used company computer equipment to download pirated software, a very serious response is in order. In these situations, how the company responds could determine its liability to a third party.
Example: Steve asks Claudia out several times, but she turns him down. When Steve asks her to be his date at a company party, Claudia says, “Look, I’ve tried to be polite about this, but I just don’t want to go out with you. Please stop asking me; I’m not going to change my mind.” Steve then begins leaving romantic notes on the windshield of Claudia’s car in the company parking lot, and on her desk. Claudia tells him to stop and reports his behavior to John, the human resources manager.
John gives Steve a verbal warning and tells him to stop bothering Claudia. Steve stops leaving notes for Claudia but begins going out of his way to see her. He times his arrival and departure from the office to coincide with hers, he hangs out in the hallway outside of her office and stares at her, and he “just happens” to cross her path during her twice weekly lunchtime walks on a nearby bike path. Claudia again complains to John, who gives Steve another verbal warning.
What’s wrong with this picture? Steve is stalking Claudia and is receiving nothing more than a slap on the wrist. The company hasn’t let Steve know that his actions are inappropriate and will not be tolerated. Claudia will be able to argue that the company should be legally responsible for any harm she suffers as a result of Steve’s actions, including her emotional distress.
Prepare to Talk to the Employee
Even if you will just be engaging in simple coaching, spend a little time preparing your approach. Planning will give you some important breathing space, so you won’t respond emotionally. It will also help you get all your ducks in a row prior to taking action, so you can explain the problem and its effects to the employee.
The keys to good preparation are:
• Get the facts you need. When you discipline an employee, it’s very important to be specific. Be prepared to offer concrete examples of the issue you want to correct and to explain how this behavior falls short of your expectations. You should also be prepared to explain clearly what the employee needs to improve and why—you might find it helpful to bring a copy of particular company policies, the employee’s job description, performance appraisals, or other documents where these expectations are expressly stated. The more general you are, the more likely the employee will be to respond by challenging you or being defensive, rather than understanding the problem. If the employee doesn’t see exactly what needs to improve and why, you won’t be able to craft a solution together.
• Gather feedback from others, if necessary. Some companies require managers to get permission—from their manager or the human resources department, for example—before imposing a verbal or written warning. Of course, you should do this if your company requires it, but there are good reasons to seek out feedback, even if you don’t have to. You can get ideas on what to say, how to say it, and what solutions might work. You can also find out how similar situations have been handled in the past—a critical factor in making sure that your disciplinary decisions can withstand legal scrutiny.
• Think about what you will say. No matter what type of discipline you’re using, you’ll have to sit down with the employee and talk about it. Script your first few sentences—what are the most important points you want to make? Because the meeting should be a collaborative exchange between you and the employee, you shouldn’t write out everything you plan to say; just consider how you’ll open the conversation and make a list of key issues to cover.
• Prepare for possible responses. Will this employee take responsibility and immediately move to solving the problem? Or will you be met with resistance? If you’re uncomfortable about emotional confrontations, plan how you will respond if the employee reacts with anger or tears. (You can find much more about preparing for an employee’s reaction in Chapter 8.)
Meet With the Employee
Now you are ready to address the issue face to face with your employee. This is where your preparation will pay off in an honest, respectful session that paves the way for improvement. In a typical meeting, you will progress through these steps:
• State the issue. At the outset, you should tell the employee exactly what you are there to discuss. This will help you set the stage for an honest conversation and avoid making the employee feel sandbagged. Follow up with a sentence or two explaining the impact on others or the company.
Example: “Karen, I wanted to meet with you today to talk about your attendance. You were at least half an hour late twice last week, on Tuesday and Wednesday. On both days, Mark tried to cover your phone, but he wasn’t able to take all of your calls along with his own. This means customers had to wait longer to talk to a representative, which doesn’t reflect well on us.”
• Review previous discussions, if any. If you and the employee have already talked about this issue—whether in a disciplinary meeting or a casual conversation—briefly summarize those discussions. This will remind the employee that he or she knew about the problem and agreed to improve. It helps justify your continued attention to the problem and focus the employee on what needs to change.
Example: “You and I discussed tardiness several months ago, after you were late for the first time. As you’ll recall, I reminded you that one of your job requirements is to be at work promptly at 9:00 a.m., every morning. You agreed that you would arrive on time from then on.”
• Get the employee’s buy-in. Before you move on, make sure the employee agrees about what happened. If you’re wrong about the facts, you should find out right away, before you try to begin solving a problem you might not have. And, if the employee reacts defensively or with anger, you’ll want to make sure that you can at least agree about what happened, even if you disagree about why.
Example: Karen responds to the statement above by saying, “I don’t think I was that late. Besides, I had to drop my daughter off at her grandmother’s house those days.”
Rather than arguing, simply restate the facts and ask the employee to agree to them. “Karen, the time clock shows that you punched in at 9:40 on Tuesday and 9:45 on Wednesday. As you know, you are scheduled to start work—and that means be at your desk, ready to answer phones—at 9:00. So before we start talking about why you were late, I want to make sure you agree that you were late on those days.”
• Hear the employee out. Once you and the employee agree on the facts, the employee will probably want to offer reasons (or excuses) for his or her behavior. Listen carefully to what the employee says—you may learn things you didn’t know about the situation, or about how your employees get along or understand their work assignments. Show that you’re listening by repeating back what you hear.
Example: Karen says, “I didn’t realize I was that late; I’m sorry. I had to take my daughter to her grandmother’s house because she was sick and couldn’t go to school. It’s so far out of my way, and I got caught in traffic.”
You respond, “So you were late because you hit traffic and had to drive farther than usual, in order to take your daughter to her grandmother’s house?”
• Start working together on solutions. During this process, you’ll want to help the employee come up with ways to solve the problem and offer any resources or help you can.
Example: You move the conversation to problem solving by saying, “Karen, I think I understand why you were late last week. But we need you here on time, every day, so our customers get the service we promise them. What can you do to make sure you get here on time?”
• Decide on a plan. Sometimes, you and the employee will come up with several ideas; other times—particularly if you are dealing with misconduct—the only solution is for the employee to stop the problem behavior. Either way, once you determine the best course of action, restate it so you both understand what will happen next.
Example: Karen says, “Well, I’m hoping this won’t be an issue, but I suppose my daughter could get sick again. I guess I could leave earlier, now that I know how long it takes to get here from her grandmother’s house. Or, if I’m running late, I could ask my husband to drop her off on his way to work; after all, it’s his mother!”
You respond, “Those sound like good ideas. So next time your daughter has to go to her grandmother’s, you’ll either leave earlier so you can get here on time or have your husband take her.”
• Decide what will happen next. If you’re managing a performance problem, state what you want to see change, and by when. Also plan to check in with the employee in the interim, to make sure things are moving forward as planned.
Example: In Karen’s case, very little follow up will be required, although you might want to ask her to check in with you the next time her daughter is sick, to make sure that her ideas for arriving on time worked.
You’ll find detailed information on how to hold coaching sessions and give verbal and written warnings in Chapters 11 through 13, and strategies for communicating effectively with employees in Chapter 7.
It is vitally important to document disciplinary matters. Of course, you’ll want written proof that the employee was aware of the problem and was given a fair chance to improve, should the issue ever end up in court. But there are many other reasons to put your disciplinary decisions and actions in writing:
• It helps you make sure that you and the employee agree on what happened, what is expected, how the employee will improve, and by when.
• It creates a record for you or the employee’s future managers to use if discipline becomes necessary again.
• It can help you identify patterns on your team. For example, if several of your reports have trouble meeting deadlines, you might want to examine your own scheduling practices. Are you giving people enough time? Does your team know why these deadlines are important? Does the team have enough resources to get the job done? Do you need to create a calendaring system, send out email reminders, or come up with another way to keep everyone on track?
You’ll find detailed instructions on how to document, including a sample form you can use, in Chapter 9.
Now that you’ve completed the difficult meeting and have an action plan for fixing the problem, you may just want to sit back and congratulate yourself on handling a difficult issue well. But remember, the ultimate goal of workplace discipline is to fix the problem and improve the employee’s performance. The only way to do this is to adhere strictly to your agreements, stay on top of the employee’s performance going forward, check in often on the status of the action plan, and work closely with your employee to ensure a positive outcome. Progressive discipline is a process, not a single meeting or document. To get the most out of the process, you need to stay involved until the problem is truly resolved.
Using This Book With Your Company’s Policy
The techniques described above are universal: You can use them to assess and deal with any problem and to apply any of the disciplinary measures available in a progressive discipline system. If your company already has a progressive discipline policy, you can apply these strategies within your company’s rules to make the system—and your management skills—more effective.
This doesn’t mean you can ignore your company’s requirements, however. Your company’s policies dictate its relationship with its employees: They reflect how the company wants and expects you to deal with workers. Deviating from established company policies can create legal risks for the company—and obviously, can get you into trouble at work, as well.
Here are some tips to get the most out of this book while complying with your company’s rules:
• When in doubt, follow company policy. If the terms, forms, or advice we use are different from your company’s policy, follow the policy. If you have questions about what you should do or whether the policy is fair or legal, talk to your human resources department.
• Pay close attention to terminology. For example, your company might have a disciplinary measure it calls an “oral reprimand,” which is in all ways identical to what we refer to as a “verbal warning.” If it’s clear that we’re all talking about the same thing, you can follow the advice we provide on verbal warnings to give an oral reprimand. If you aren’t certain, follow your company’s policy.
• Focus on strategy. Even if your company’s policy is different from our model, you can apply the planning, communication, collaboration, documentation, and follow up techniques we provide here. Your company’s policy provides the structure for discipline (the disciplinary measures available and when they should be used); we provide strategies to make your discipline most effective no matter what form of discipline your company requires.
Progressive Discipline Basics:
l If your company has a discipline policy, you should follow it. The techniques in this book, including planning, communication, collaboration, documentation, and follow up, can be used in conjunction with that policy. When in doubt about what to do, what your company policy requires, or whether the policy creates legal risks for the company, you should talk to your manager, human resources department, or legal counsel.
l A carefully written discipline policy notifies employees that they’ll be disciplined for violating company policy, gives managers guidance about how to apply company policy, tells employees that they’ll have fair opportunity to improve the problem performance or behavior, and reserves the right to deviate from the policy when appropriate and to terminate employment at will.
l When faced with a problem requiring discipline, you’ll have to gather information, assess the severity, decide how to respond, meet with the employee, document, and follow up.
l Discipline should be proportionate to the seriousness of the problem, considering things like the effect of the behavior, the frequency of the behavior, the employee’s disciplinary history, and the legality of the employee’s conduct.