Disciplining Employees

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Despite our best efforts at hiring the right people, sometimes they do not behave or learn in the way that we anticipate, and so discipline follows their actions. This module will explore some different ways of looking at discipline.

The General Discipline Process

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Most employees want to do what they are expected to do at work, and most of them want to do it well. When performance problems appear, you need to:

  • Act quickly: Letting a problem linger because you do not like to address performance issues can also mean that poor work becomes the normal way of doing things within your area of responsibility. Human nature being what it is if one worker sees another get away with sub-standard performance, they may think that you are fine with it too, and then a small problem becomes a much larger one. 
  • Clarify the expectations of the employee’s role. If he does not know what he is being measured against, it’s pretty hard for him to improve.
  • Assist in approving the performance by providing adequate direction when necessary. Make sure that employees know what the company’s policies are, and that they are applied consistently and fairly.
  • Work with the employee to resolve the problem by applying a progressive discipline process. 
  • Clearly and consistently document the steps that you take through the process, including support, training, incidents of misconduct, meetings, and coaching sessions. 

The Progressive Discipline Process

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Before we start, please note that the principles and steps here apply to progressive discipline in general, but that some jurisdictions may have specific rules pertaining to this. In addition, collective agreements may stipulate a quite different process (although with similar goals and outcomes). This module outlines a general process for progressive discipline, and is not to be construed as specific legal advice, or as appropriate in all situations or jurisdictions. Make sure that you understand the labor laws in the area that you are managing.

Progressive discipline is a method of behavior correction that allows you to build on the strengths of existing policy, and to apply corrective expectations when employee performance is below the acceptable standard. The process can be applied for both incompetence (when an employee lacks skills or knowledge needed for the job) and misconduct (when an employee knows what they are responsible for, but neglects those responsibilities).

Each time you meet with an employee about their performance, you need to keep dated documentation about the discussion that took place; training completed; warnings and letters provided; and copies of supporting documentation such as error rates, performance reviews, or witness statements.

Managing Incompetence: When the employee lacks the skills to perform their work at an acceptable level, a meeting to clarify the expectations of the job is necessary. Be open with the employee, and let them know what will happen if there is no improvement, including dismissal. Act promptly, because if you are considered to have ignored the problem (and thereby condoned the poor performance), you cannot use it as a reason for dismissal. 

Next, assess whether the person has the ability to learn the skills needed, and then provide them with training and support to improve their performance and gain practice and confidence with their new skills. If the performance improves, then the process has been successful. If they have not improved, then you are closer to determining whether terminating their employment is justified. 

Managing Misconduct: Depending on the severity of the misconduct, you may have just cause to dismiss the employee immediately. This is called summary dismissal, and is common in cases that involve serious breaches of company policy and/or the law (theft, assault, or reckless behavior with company equipment or vehicles, for example). Deciding how severe an infraction is should also take into account the seriousness and frequency of the misconduct; the employee’s work history; and the effect on the company. 

As indicated in the previous module, you cannot delay your action plan, because you could be seen as condoning the behavior, and then unable to use it in a dismissal. 

If the infraction is minor, speak with the employee and allow all sides of the issue to be heard through an investigation. Collect and document the facts, including witness statements. Outline the consequences if job expectations are not met. If you can agree that the behavior will be corrected and that is what occurs, then the progressive discipline ends. 

Ensure that you document everything. If the behavior does not improve, you can then implement the next step of discipline, which is a written letter outlining the job expectations and future consequences if they are not met, including possible suspension. If the problem persists, consider suspending the employee. Again, you will have to produce a written document that confirms what is taking place and the consequences if job expectations are not met. 

Once the suspension has ended, your next step is to try and forge an agreement that there will not be any further misconduct. You are now in a stronger position to determine whether the last resort, dismissal, is warranted. 

Aggravating Factors: Although the progressive discipline policy may be clear, there can be some mitigating factors in incompetence and misconduct. These can include: 

  • Whether the misconduct was intentional
  • Whether the employee accepts responsibility for their actions
  • Whether the issue was an isolated or lone incident
  • The employee’s length of service with the company
  • The employee’s work history

In many organizations, anything past that first step of progressive discipline will be managed by the supervisor and someone from the HR area. The HR representative may attend the meetings with you, assist with documentation, and ensure that the progressive discipline policy is being adhered to fairly. If questions arise, then checking with legal counsel is always appropriate in cases leading to dismissal, to ensure that any legal matters are addressed, and that the potential for legal suit is minimized if possible.  

Throughout this process, keep in mind that the goal of a progressive discipline process is to modify behavior, and to support development of an effective and productive employee.

Having Discipline Meetings

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Depending on the process for progressive discipline in your workplace, there may typically be two to three discipline meetings. 

  1. An employee demonstrates non-standard behavior (misconduct or incompetence).

An informal meeting takes place between the immediate supervisor and employee to identify the unwanted behavior, and outline expectations for improvement (including dates). The supervisor must clearly document this incident. Since the meeting should follow as soon as possible after the non-standard behavior is discovered, there is no letter provided at this stage. 

  1. If the non-standard behavior continues, the supervisor arranges a more formal meeting with the employee. 

Again the undesirable behavior is discussed, and expectations for improvement. Consequences are also outlined in this step. 

  1. If the undesirable behavior continues, a formal meeting is arranged again. 

In this meeting, a written letter is provided to the employee with an action plan for improvement and clearly outlined consequences. If the possibility of termination, suspension, or charges is possible, share that information with the employee. Have the employee sign a copy of the letter indicating that they have received a copy for their records. (They do not have to agree with what is written in the letter, just sign to acknowledge receipt.)

Often employees will refuse to sign the letter, or they may prefer to take it away with them, read it on their own, and then sign it. If they refuse to sign it, that too is a disciplinary matter that you may have to address. As we said earlier, they are not signing to say they agree with the letter; only to confirm that they received a copy. 

Some tips for making the most of disciplinary meetings:

  • Make sure that you have all the information for the meeting before you begin (notes, evidence, facts, etc.).
  • Keep the meeting focused on the behavior, and not the individual. Make sure that your language is free of personal emotion (such as “I am so disappointed in you!”) and stick to the issues (“We are speaking today because you were found with stolen property in the backseat of your car this morning.”).
  • Conduct the meeting away from the eyes and ears of other employees. Discipline should never embarrass anyone, especially the person receiving it. 
  • Check your HR policies so that you know the desired format for any letters or disciplinary documentation. Also check to see at what stage the HR consultant or manager also needs to be a part of the meeting (often by the second formal meeting). 
  • If you are handing out consequences, make sure that you have the authority to enforce them. It’s no good threatening to suspend someone if you actually do not have the ability to follow through. 

Following Up

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Often the initial progressive discipline meetings that you hold are enough to correct the unwanted behavior. When that is the case, acknowledge the positive changes with the employee, and move on. 

However, if more steps need to be taken and you neglect to follow up on time, you will derail the progressive nature of discipline and may end up stuck with a problem employee who never changes their behavior…and really has no reason to, since there are no real consequences anyway. 

Do whatever it takes to ensure you follow up on time: write it in your day timer, set up a reminder on your computer, or book the meeting with the employee in advance. 

Case Study

Thomas and Alexander were discussing disciplinary methods after a specific complaint had arisen in the work place. The employee in question would attend a hearing, but the time and place had yet to be discussed, and the pair was worried that the problem could escalate should the hearing be delayed. Alexander suggested they discuss the General Discipline Process and Thomas agreed. They realized that they should: act quickly, clarify the expectations of the employee’s role, assist by providing direction where necessary, work with the employee to resolve the problem, and consistently document the steps in the resolution. Thomas and Alexander were satisfied they could help the employee resolve the issue at hand and set the time for the discussion with the employee for the following afternoon.