Taking disciplinary action against an employee can be uncomfortable, but giving them the opportunity to correct their behavior or performance can make them a productive member of the team.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a 3-part series about progressive discipline. Read the first installment article: ‘Creating a Progressive Discipline Policy — and Yes, Your Business Needs One’. Read the third installment: ‘Failed Disciplinary Action: What to Do When Your Employee Doesn’t Improve?’.
Every business owner faces the prospect of disciplining staff at one point or another. These meetings can be, at best, uncomfortable — and at worst, volatile. Managing the disciplinary process professionally and in compliance with the law is a necessary skill for all business owners and HR professionals.
The goal of these meetings shouldn’t be a confrontation, it should be a correction. With that in mind, the process can be professional and productive.
Disciplinary meetings are difficult for everyone: the employee is no less uncomfortable than you are. By the time a situation has risen to the level of a disciplinary meeting, the employee should have been warned, at least once, that their behavior or conduct is unacceptable. If verbal warnings have gone unheeded, disciplinary action is warranted.
Termination isn’t the goal
The goal of a disciplinary meeting isn’t to prepare the employee for termination. It’s to correct their behavior, mistake, or problem so the employee can be a productive member of the team. You’ve invested time, resources, and training in each employee — no matter how new or seasoned they are.
Your first choice should be to protect that investment and rehabilitate the employee, if at all possible. When you discuss and schedule the meeting with the staffer, emphasize that your goal is to fix the problem — together.
Preparing for a disciplinary meeting
Problematic conduct should be outlined in your employee handbook. While some rules and policies are listed — like not harassing coworkers — others may not be specified (like getting to work on time). Be ready to support your position regarding the infraction with a copy of the handbook you’ve issued to employees and an acknowledgment form if it’s applicable.
If there is no specific policy you’re citing, be ready to defend your position overall: to make your case that the conduct is unacceptable. Workers, for example, are normally expected to call in or email to say they’re taking the day off because they’re sick. Not calling in or e-mailing is not only inconsiderate, it’s unfair to the rest of the staff who do make that effort.
Whatever the issue, it’s time to agree on an action plan and timeline.
If performance is the issue, you might not have a specific policy on what is considered acceptable. Based on the training the employee has received and how long they’ve been on the job, however, you should have basic benchmarks for comparison.
When it comes to underperforming employees, be ready to outline where they’re missing productivity goals and objectives and where they should be with regard to performance.
Starting the disciplinary meeting
Once you’ve established a time to meet with the employee, lay out the problem specifically. You’ll want to outline the following:
- What the infraction was
- When it occurred
- Why it’s not acceptable behavior
Ask the employee what, if anything, they would like to discuss with regard to the incident or action. They may have a legitimate defense: be willing and open to listening to their side of the issue.
“I was up late partying and overslept, so I didn’t bother to call in sick,” is not a legitimate defense. “I was involved in a car accident and was rushed to the hospital,” is.
They may suggest their lack of performance is due to missed or insufficient training. That may be legitimate. Assuming that everyone who made it through a training or onboarding process is 100% ready and up to speed is a mistake: some employees need a bit of extra help to get over the hump.
Be ready to offer additional assistance if needed and warranted.
What not to do in a disciplinary meeting
Don’t let excuses or justifications go on indefinitely; an hour-long diatribe about how hard it is to wake up in the morning isn’t productive for anyone. You’ll want to hear what they have to say, but not spend an hour with them repeating it. When they have nothing new to offer, let them know you’ve listened but it’s time to move forward.
Don’t let the situation escalate — the goal of the meeting is to correct the behavior or problem, not have it turn into a crying fest. Remind the employee your aim is correction, and you’re meeting with them to come up with a plan to do so. They’ll need to compose themselves so you can move forward.
Create a performance improvement plan
Whatever the issue, it’s time to agree on an action plan and timeline. For example, if performance is the problem and additional training is warranted, determine when and how the assistance will be provided.
If tardiness is the issue, tell your employees they must be at work on time beginning immediately.
Be reasonable but firm. “I’ll try to do better” isn’t a sufficient response. The employee must agree to change their behavior or work with the company to improve their performance.
The reason for the meeting, again, is correction — not promises or generalizations. Outline the problem, agree on the solution, and set a specific timeline for change.
You’ll want the employee to clearly understand what the consequences of not making a change will be. For many employers, progressive disciplinary steps are followed. They may include, in subsequent order:
- A warning
- A suspension
- Termination, if the behavior hasn’t been corrected over time
Employees must understand the meeting and disciplinary action aren’t empty gestures. There needs to be a motive for them to change. Your aim is to set reasonable goals and expectations to alter their behavior and let them know there will be consequences if those aren’t met.
Asking for change that is open-ended with no timeline or outline of further steps is unproductive. You want to be specific with the problem, the solution, and the time frame in which it must be achieved.
Document the meeting
For your information and protection and for the employees, document what was discussed and agreed upon. The timeline for correction should be specifically included so there’s no confusion over what’s necessary and by when. For documentation, some employers use templates they fill out during the meeting.
You’ll want the document signed by both you and the employee. Make sure to provide the employee with a copy so they are clear about expectations and goals.
Schedule a follow-up meeting
It bears repeating: the goal of the meeting is to correct behaviors and reclaim the employee. Schedule a follow-up meeting (include the date and time in the meeting notes you provide to the employee), to discuss their progress and reassess the situation.
Why schedule a follow-up? It sends a message that you’re serious about the issue and invested in the employee. You’re willing to take additional time to ensure they’re on track.
When you next meet, talk about any changes that have been made and, hopefully, congratulate the employee for the turn-around.
If there has been no progress or change, the follow-up meeting may include a second warning to the employee that includes even more consequences. Again, you’ll want to document the problem, set a new timeline for correction, and schedule another follow-up meeting to readdress the issue.
Disciplinary meetings don’t have to be difficult and uncomfortable. If you go into the meeting with the goal of salvaging an employee and correcting a problem, you may find that they can turn around and be highly productive.
When the employee understands you’re willing to give them a chance to fix the issue, rather than letting them go, they may be more willing to change and more motivated to become a reliable, long-term employee.