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Boss’s Tip of the Week #23: Discipline: How to Change Problem Behavior

Here is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

None of us likes to see another person’s spirit diminished, even temporarily, and none of us likes to be the bad guy. That’s part of why discipline at work is often done so poorly. Other reasons are because it’s done emotionally (usually in anger), because it’s applied inconsistently (different disciplinary measures for the same infraction), because the company has no discipline policy (so managers don’t know what to do when an infraction occurs), and because managers forget the real purpose of discipline (which is not to punish, but to change a person’s behavior).
 
Administering discipline is never easy, but it becomes far less difficult if you do it fairly. That means know your options. Use them appropriately. Act rationally, not emotionally. And keep your eye on the big picture—reforming the behavior: 
 
Use the employee handbook. Understand the policies and procedures outlined in your employee handbook. It’s important that any discipline be consistent with the handbook. You don’t want to discipline any employee for taking a long lunch hour on voting day, for example, if the manual says she may.

Listen to employees. There’s no excuse for some behavior, such as harassing a co-worker or stealing, but you must obtain the accused’s side of the story before you take action. The employee may offer a credible denial or admit to the behavior. They may have logical explanations for apparent lapses. Was an employee late because she stopped in the parking lot to help an injured colleague? Ask before you assume the worst.

Know your options. At-will employers reserve the right to use whatever discipline, including immediate termination, they believe is appropriate. Many potential options, and combinations of options, are available, including

• Oral admonishment, warning or instruction
• Written admonishment, warning or instruction
• Training
• Suspension without pay
• Indefinite or temporary demotion
• Indefinite or temporary transfer
• Indefinite or temporary loss of benefit(s)
• Termination

The key is to choose the option that effectively changes inappropriate behavior or poor work performance, deters or prevents unlawful conduct, and shows your concern for the rights of your employees. Sometimes an immediate termination is necessary (such as for sexual harassment or stealing) and sometimes a milder action is more appropriate. Because legal as well as management or labor relations issues lurk behind these decisions, always consider consulting with HR or your boss before imposing any discipline.
 
Be careful not to open the door to charges of discrimination. Be certain, for example, you know how your company has treated similar cases in the past. You aren’t tied to the same discipline that was previously imposed, but if you vary from precedent, do so only for legitimate, business-related reasons. For example, the same offense can have different consequences for a 20-year employee with an unblemished record than for a six-month employee previously warned for the same behavior.
 
Discipline effectively. Ninety percent of all the discipline you impose will be warnings. To be effective and complete, a written warning must:

• Communicate what the problem is. Describe what the employee has done that is inappropriate, against the rules, or not productive.
• Communicate what your expectations and requirements are. Describe what the employee must do in the future.
• Communicate the consequences of failing to meet your expectations or requirements. Describe what will happen, such as suspension without pay or termination. (Beware: You may be limited to consequences you have communicated. Was the employee fairly put on notice of the consequences?)
• Provide space for the employee to object or answer.
• Be signed by the employee.

Extra credit is given to warnings that explain why the employee’s behavior is a problem: “Your tardiness puts an unfair burden on other employees in the department who must not only do their own work, but who must also, unexpectedly, rearrange their responsibilities to handle the work they were expecting you to perform.”
 
Exercise restraint. No rules exist that dictate which form of discipline to use for which circumstance. (Exceptions may arise if you are governed by a collective bargaining agreement or your employee handbook limits your options.) However, certain guidelines should be considered:

• Unless the problem is serious, start with an admonishment. If you start with harsher discipline, it could limit your options in the future if the problem persists, and the employee may feel you’re unfair.
• Don’t feel you have to use every option available. In some cases (excessive tardiness, for example), there isn’t any training that’s likely to help. In other cases, you may need to respond to new circumstances. Suppose you overheard an employee calling a co-worker a fool. Giving the employee an oral admonishment might be appropriate. If the employee continued to call his co-workers names, a written warning would be the next logical step. But if the employee instead threatened a co-worker or even hit someone, you’d need to impose harsher discipline, such as a suspension or even termination, right away.
• Discipline usually becomes progressively harsher. It’s uncommon to suspend someone and then backpedal to a warning.
• See every step of discipline as the last one. Some high school principals create a self-perpetuating problem. They tell certain students that they expect to see them again, and so they do. People tend to meet your expectations for them. Inappropriate behavior is more likely to stop if you expect it to stop. See every step as an opportunity to teach.

Meet with employees. Meet privately. Remain calm and respectful. If necessary, take some time before the meeting to collect yourself and your thoughts. Getting angry or emotional is liable to provoke a confrontation. Allow the employee to leave if he asks to. Have a witness present so that there’s no argument later about what was said.
 
Don’t lose sight of the positive. When we have to discipline an employee it’s easy (and natural) to let the problem blot out all else. But almost no employee is all bad; for the most part, employees perform well and try to do a good job. When you meet with an employee, try to remember what you like about her and what she does well. That will help keep the meeting constructive, instead of punitive.
 
Revisit the problem. Don’t discipline an employee and then forget about it. Remember, the goal is improvement. Review the situation again (30 days may be a good target); has it improved? If so, commend the employee for improving. If not, further discipline may be needed.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #23: Discipline: How to Change Problem Behavior
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