Failed Disciplinary Action: What to Do When Your Employee Doesn’t Improve?

You’ve given your employees chances to correct their behavior or performance, but they haven’t improved. What do you do next?

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Terminating an employee is not an easy task. Here are 3 things to consider before you make that final decision

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a 3-part series about progressive discipline. Read the first installment: ‘Creating a Progressive Discipline Policy — and Yes, Your Business Needs One’. Read the second installment: ‘Disciplinary Meetings: What to Discuss with Your Employee’.

You’ve invested time, resources, and energy in each employee — from new hires to those who have been with you since the beginning. Some have become friends. Others, members of your business family. However, problems have arisen.

Attempts to resolve them have been unsuccessful and now you’re at the stage of wondering what to do next. Do you let them go, continue trying to correct the problem, or just learn to live with it? The answer, as with so many things, is “it depends.”

When employees make mistakes, underperform, or violate company policies and rules, progressive corrective or disciplinary actions should take place. They typically start with verbal warnings but can escalate if the situation warrants.

Employees who don’t heed warnings or disciplinary steps make themselves vulnerable to even more corrections that can ultimately result in them being let go. But since business owners have to make the final decision, many hope the problem will just go away. It generally won’t.

Before you make that final determination, there are 3 things to consider.

1. Why hasn’t a correction been made?

Some issues are easily resolved — take an earlier train and get to work on time. Others require more effort and assistance.

When an employee is underperforming because they simply won’t take the time to do their work accurately, the solution is their responsibility. If they underperform because they’ve been inadequately trained or not given the tools they need to function, the solution is up to you.

Before you decide to let a staff member go, remember the investment you made in them. Is there something else you could do to salvage the relationship? Imagine you have an otherwise good employee who has problems dealing professionally with customers, for example. Is there a way to move them away from a front-facing position?

If discipline hasn’t worked and training hasn’t resulted in the necessary change, you know the choice you have to make.

If not, are there training modules you could offer or suggest to help them bolster their customer relations skills? In some cases, balancing a small investment in a training course against the cost of rehiring and retraining a new employee is worthwhile.

You may have taken every step to recover the employee, but still, nothing has worked. One final consideration might be to ask them what they would suggest. If all your efforts have been futile, what is their solution to the problem?

If they have an idea that’s reasonable, it might be useful to try it — even if only on a limited or pilot basis. If it works, everyone wins; if not, you’ve given it your best shot. Your decision has been made if they can’t offer any solutions to their problem.

2. Is the employee worth it?

Your best sales representative brings in the bulk of your revenue — clearly, they’re an asset to the team. But the downside is they are a serial harasser. They annoy others in the office with unwanted advances or comments, yet their conduct on sales calls is impeccable.

When you consider the clients you’d lose if you let them go, you cringe. But when you look at the risk they pose for harassment or discrimination claims, you break into a cold sweat.

In many instances, employees who feel they’re irreplaceable won’t take correction seriously. If discipline hasn’t worked and training hasn’t resulted in the necessary change, you know the choice you have to make.

Putting it off, even in the short term, is a mistake. The longer they’re on the payroll, the higher the chance of a claim or lawsuit. You only have to ask yourself how much of the revenue they bring in would be consumed with legal fees to make the right choice.

3. What would be the consequence of losing them?

No one really is irreplaceable. Even Steve Jobs was forced out of the company he built. Your staff members may think no one can do their job, but ask yourself: if they won the lottery tomorrow, wouldn’t they quit and leave you high and dry? Would you have to close your doors permanently? Of course not — you’d figure it out.

Cross-training is the first step to insulate your company against the “irreplaceables.” Making sure that at least one other person knows at least the basics of what others do is critical — and not just in case they hit the jackpot.

When staff members go on vacation or if they fall ill, you need coverage. It also gives employees a chance to become more valuable and more skilled, and it may even spark interest in another position or department. Room to grow for employees is a plus, no matter what size your business.

If letting go of the employee has no real downside, ask what the upside would be: A more pleasant working environment, fewer customer complaints, fewer mistakes, and returns? If disciplinary efforts haven’t worked and there’s no real disadvantage to firing them, what are you waiting for?

Terminating an employee is never easy. Far too many owners put off this important business decision because they’re fearful of the fallout or uncomfortable with the deed itself. You’ve made every effort to salvage the employee through disciplinary actions and training and they haven’t turned the problem around. They made the decision: it’s up to you to finalize it and replace them with a valued member of the team, rather than a drain.

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