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Employee Discipline: What To Do When Your Employees Screw Up

FieldPulse | October 16, 2016

employee discipline

In an ideal world, your employees wouldn’t make mistakes. They’d do their jobs well, they’d keep you in the loop, and they’d respect your customers. They’d let you know the moment something breaks or goes wrong, and they’d put their job first. Real employees, however, aren’t perfect. They screw up, they lie, they get angry, and they try to hide their mistakes. They’re human.

There’s a difference between bad employees and good employees who screw up, though. Knowing how to recognize the difference, and how to handle them when something bad happens, can have a huge impact on employee retention and your overall productivity. If you want to save money on turnover and maintain peak performance, follow these rules for employee discipline.

Rule 0: Play From The Same Rulebook

If the standards you hold your employees to and the objectives they pursue don’t align, you’re going to have a bad time. Before you get to the disciplinary action, make sure your employees understand their objectives and what will happen if they don’t meet them.

If you’re having an issue with poor customer service, make sure your employees understand their role in the service process. If they feel like they’re “just there for the work” when you’re measuring their attitude and politeness, there will be friction when their behavior fails to produce the results you want to see.

With clear guidelines in place, disciplinary actions you take won’t be interpreted as personal or unfair. By making sure your employees understand those guidelines and how they relate to their daily work, they’ll be able to contextualize why they’re facing disciplinary action. It’s a bit of advanced work, but it will smooth out the entire process when issues start to appear.

Rule 1: Don’t Procrastinate

When you get a complaint about an employee, it’s easy to brush it off or wait until that issue reoccurs. But when you don’t handle issues promptly, they can quickly grow out of control.

It’s important to note, though, that the disciplinary process rarely starts with direct reprimands. If you start the process early enough, you can start it as a conversation instead of a lecture. Check in with the worker in question, ask them about the issue that’s been reported, and work toward salvaging the situation instead of moving immediately to punishment.

Your initial goal in talking to your employee should be to determine fault. Was it an issue they could actually control, or something larger than their position? Most of the time the answer will be somewhere in the middle, but knowing why the issue happened will help you fix it in the long run.

If the issue was a communication issue, where the employee didn’t understand their responsibilities or how they were supposed to handle the situation that arose, jumping into the process early can help you fix the issue before it grows.

Rule 2: Document the Process

Employment laws are tricky, but proper disciplinary documentation is good for more than just legal protection. Tracking when and why employees screw up or perform poorly will help you understand their behavior, and help you during the disciplinary process itself.

It’s easy to let HR processes slide when you’re running a small business, and scheduling monthly or quarterly meetings with employees who spend most of their time on the road can be hard, but it’s important to have regular conversations about performance.

Performance documentation is, really, an extension of Rule 0. Written guidelines are only useful if you check in with them on a regular basis and add to them throughout the year. If you don’t have a record of when and why your employees have screwed up, making intelligent decisions can be hard.

Everyone has some kind of unconscious bias, which is why consistent documentation and a clear disciplinary process can save you from making bad choices when things go wrong. Just as our unconscious biases influence who we hire, those biases can also lead to employers going easy on employees who like the same football team or hard on employees that don’t meet their lifestyle expectations. By keeping track of when and why your employees mess up, you can make sure that the disciplinary actions you take match their performance instead of your unconscious expectations.

This will help you avoid both conflict within the workplace, and legal action outside of it.

Rule 3: Know the Difference Between Bad Behavior and Bad Work

Employees in the service industry tend to be independent, and knowing what exactly happens at the worksite is hard. When things go wrong and disciplinary action is necessary, the way it’s implemented is very important, but the exact disciplinary process depends on how the employee screws up.

Behavioral issues can lead directly to customer complaints and bad reviews. A bad attitude is bad for business, and an angry or combative employee can cause long-term damage to a business’ reputation if their behavior isn’t addressed. In most circumstances, however, an employee’s attitude can’t be changed with a simple reprimand; they need a disciplinary process that helps them realign with the business’s goals, and shows them how their behavior directly impacts their income. Monitoring behavioral issues can be hard, but with a well-built post-service follow up process, you can use customer feedback to monitor how the employee improves.

Bad work can also lead to bad reviews, but it tends to reflect on the company as a whole. If it isn’t managed well bad work can be dangerous, and even lead to lawsuits. Work quality issues can typically be addressed with remedial training, an observation period, and on-the-job mentoring from other employees. The escalation process tends to be clearer in these cases and, as long as there’s clear documentation on how the job should be done (Rule 0), the employee should be able to understand why their work isn’t adequate for the situation.

The exact process for each disciplinary action type varies depending on the exact service niche that you operate in, but having separate processes for each will still help you improve the quality of the service you provide. By taking the time to set up the process in advance you’ll ensure that the way you handle each employee is fair and unbiased, leading to better results overall.

Rule 4: Keep it Legal

This last rule should be common sense for most businesses, but it’s important to note nonetheless. Employment law limits what disciplinary actions you can take and how the disciplinary process operates. Before building your disciplinary process, make sure it won’t hurt your business later on.

Generally speaking, levying fines, or requiring uncompensated overtime is illegal. In the limited circumstances that it is legal, it has to be explicitly defined in the employment contract and explained to the employee before hiring. Demotions, suspensions without pay, and payroll reductions are legal, but there’s a big difference between making large position changes in response to poor performance and punitively docking pay over singular issues.

Your disciplinary process should be reviewed by a lawyer versed in state and federal employment laws. Playing things ‘by ear’ is an easy way to end up in a legal battle over discriminatory practices, even in at-will states, and the time you take to build a legal disciplinary process definitely pays off. Make sure you follow EEOC guidelines for your disciplinary process and document the process such that you can demonstrate your adherence if an employee attempts to litigate.

Disciplinary processes have two goals: to rehabilitate the employee, and to protect the company. In cases where the employee is grossly negligent or willfully damaging the company, your disciplinary process should lead to a clean (and prompt) dismissal. It shouldn’t be used as coercion or leverage to “keep people in line,” and letting emotions interfere with the process can lead to legal issues, especially if the employee wants to fight back.

No One Is Perfect

It’s important to remember, that an explicit disciplinary process doesn’t have to be a harsh one. Everyone makes mistakes, and you don’t need a paper trail for small things that don’t impact job performance. Don’t let paperwork make human interaction feel robotic, and don’t create procedures that make simple things needlessly complicated.

As long as you follow the rules and follow the law, your disciplinary process should alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty that comes with disciplining employees. Perfect people don’t exist, which means perfect employees are impossible. Investing in your disciplinary process to create a fair, consistent, and legal system to keep your business operating smoothly is immensely beneficial. Most small business owners hate paperwork, but this is one situation where redundancy and thoroughness pays off. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of handling these situations is to correct future behavior of that employee as well as your whole team to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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