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6 steps to effective worker discipline

Don’t rush to judgment, adhere to the employee handbook and be consistent in your follow-through.

6 steps to effective  worker discipline

When you see the term “problem employee,” what comes to mind? Perhaps someone in your practice makes negative comments about virtually every situation, whereas someone else may disappear whenever an unpleasant task needs to be done. Or maybe someone believes she has the correct answer for every situation, and she doesn’t follow procedure when it conflicts with what another employee thinks is appropriate.

While every practice will have a different version of a problem employee, nearly every practice has to deal with at least one such person. When an employee acts in an inappropriate way, how should the situation be handled? When is disciplinary action warranted?

Here is a six-step process.

Step 1

Enter the situation, as a manager, with the appropriate attitude. Make sure you are not making a decision based on angry feelings, and don’t rush to judgment. The decision as to whether to discipline an employee must be made carefully.

Step 2

Identify the cause of the problem. In general, there are two types: performance problems and behavioral problems. It’s important to determine which type you are dealing with before you proceed.

Performance problems occur when an employee is not meeting minimum job expectations. If you establish metrics and measure them, determining whether an employee is meeting standards if fairly easy. If the answer is no, try to figure out why. Does the employee need more training? Is he or she lacking in a certain skill? If so, then the issue can potentially be addressed by providing additional help to increase the employee’s productivity.

Behavioral issues, though, typically occur when an employee deliberately decides to not comply with established rules, procedures or policies. This can encompass negligence, insubordination and other misconduct. Actions taken are typically within the employee’s control and are the type often culminating in disciplinary actions.

Step 3

Gather information. For a performance-based issue, statistical information is often helpful. If, for example, an employee is tasked with sending 10 postcards weekly to clients but he is sending out an average of eight, that hard data is important to share with the employee. Remember to look deeper at the situation. If Employee A is not meeting postcard requirements, the fact that Employee B has been away from work for the past six weeks for medical reasons may be highly relevant. How did Employee A perform before that time frame?

If a problem is behavioral — perhaps an employee does a substandard job of cleaning cages — gather examples of behaviors you consider unacceptable and how often they are occurring.

Step 4

Next, determine what disciplinary actions would be appropriate. Generally accepted actions include:

  • Informal discussion
  • Verbal warning
  • Written warning
  • Final written warning
  • Suspension without pay
  • Demotion
  • Decrease in pay or hours
  • “Last chance” warning
  • Termination

Before you move forward, it’s important to ensure that the disciplinary actions you are about to take are consistent with procedures listed in the employee handbook and with how you have handled similar situations.

If specific disciplinary steps are listed in the handbook, follow them. Does, for example, your handbook state that specific steps will be taken in order, or does it give you flexibility to tailor disciplinary measures to the situation? If the handbook does not appropriately address the situation, consider revising the handbook to address future incidents.

Then consider past disciplinary incidents and how you handled them. Which one is closest in nature to what you’re facing now? In that previous situation, did you skip steps? If so, why?

Because of the seriousness of the infraction? How does that compare with what you’re dealing with today?

Important caution: As you navigate a situation, be careful that you do not take disciplinary actions that could be considered discriminatory. It is extremely important for your practice to be consistent in how you discipline employees; if there is a reason you will not be able to handle comparable offenses in a consistent way, carefully document your reasons. Also, be sure the offense and the discipline fit one another. If an employee becomes physically aggressive with someone, for example, immediate termination may be warranted. That is not necessarily true if the issue is lateness to work.

Step 5

Meet with the employee. It’s important to do your best to have this discussion in a private area where you’re unlikely to be overheard and to keep the meeting between you and the employee. This meeting will likely be tense, no matter how justified you are in your actions. Be sure to remain calm and share your message with your employee in a straightforward, unemotional way.

Give the employee a chance to share his side of the story. Although it is unlikely you will change your mind about the actions being taken, you may learn relevant new information. At a minimum, this may reduce the employee’s resistance about the steps you’re taking.

Key steps include:

  • Develop a clear statement describing the behavior or performance deficiency that led to the discipline, and include specific examples.
  • Restate the expectations and requirements about the area of deficiency.
  • Develop a performance improvement plan that includes a list of tasks, activities, deliverables and outcomes that must occur within a set time.
  • Schedule a date to follow-up.
  • Review the consequences of future occurrences with this or related deficiencies.
  • Review the highlights of your discussion.
  • Document the discussion. Have the employee sign a form that summarizes the disciplinary action, and place a signed copy in the employee’s official personnel folder.
  • Be sure to give the employee a chance to share his side of the story. Although it is unlikely you will change your mind about actions being taken, you may learn relevant new information. At a minimum, this may reduce the employee’s resistance about the steps you’re taking.

You may wonder whether it makes sense to impose a timeframe for corrective actions. The answer is that they can backfire. If, for example, you tell him you will closely monitor over the next 60 days whether he leaves work early, the employee can comply and then revert to former behaviors, claiming that he met the standards set in the warning. Your goal is to have behaviors improve and then have that improvement sustained over the long haul.

With behavioral issues, the onus for improvement is entirely upon the employee. With performance issues, you must play an active role, perhaps by providing ongoing training and more frequent feedback.

Step 6

Document all important interactions with your employee, such as the disciplinary action meeting, and place a copy of your detailed notes in the employee’s official personnel file. Refer to the document upon future disciplinary actions or when it’s time to provide performance reviews, pay raises, promotions and the like. If the employee ever claims you treated him unfairly, this documentation will make it easier to defend your actions.

Don’t wait until you need to address disciplinary issues to foolproof relevant procedures. Ensure that you have processes in place before the next situation arises and you will be much better prepared to handle incidents requiring discipline.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.