Every company needs a smart employee discipline strategy. Here are nine tips to help you build an effective policy for your business.
No matter the industry or organization, employee discipline matters for several reasons. First, employee discipline sets the right example. Sending the message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated is vital to creating a safe, respectful, and effective workplace. Second, employee discipline protects your business. Having a consistent and clear channel that your business goes through to resolve employee behavioral issues can help you avoid wrongful termination lawsuits.
In an ideal world, you wouldn’t ever have to discipline an employee. There are things you can do to try to create this kind of environment at your business. You can run thorough background checks to weed out employees who are unqualified or potentially dangerous. You can use reference checks to learn about behavioral issues at previous jobs. You can be very deliberate in how you set out rules and behavioral expectations in the employee handbook.
At the end of the day, even the best efforts don’t always succeed. Having an effective discipline strategy as a backup in these situations is essential. Here are nine tips to help you build one.
- Clarify your policies: You can’t discipline employees for breaking rules that don’t exist. If you want to prevent certain behavior in the workplace, you need to set boundaries against it in your employee handbook. Create definitions for what your company considers sexual harassment. Define policies for technology use to keep employees from spending too much time on their phones or non-work-related websites. Clarify your expectations on timeliness and tardiness. Even if something seems obvious, having a documented policy makes the disciplinary process much easier.
- Be consistent: You can’t discipline an employee for doing something another employee has been getting away with for six months. If you write up one employee for consistently leaving work five minutes early, but don’t write up another employee who leaves 10 minutes early on a regular basis, you are setting the wrong example. You need to decide when you are going to enforce rules and expectations and be consistent about it.
- Establish an escalation process: Every disciplinary strategy is a process. You aren’t going to jump right to termination on the first violation. Instead, you should have an escalation process in place. Upon the first behavioral violation, an oral warning or a reminder of the rules might be in order. Subsequent violations could lead to formal written warnings, probation, suspension, or termination.
- Write everything down: You need to keep track of all disciplinary action—even if it is just an informal oral reprimand. Managers should have a document or journal where they keep track of violations. Each violation entry should be specific, citing the date, the offense, and the type of warning given. Depending on the nature of the offense, you might also include a column that lists the employee’s justification for the offense. For instance, an employee who was late to work might have provided a reason, such as a car accident or bad weather. In any case, keeping a running ledger of violations will make it easier to justify termination if the situation comes to that.
- Have a format for formal documentations: Writing everything down in a ledger or spreadsheet is important because it gives the employee an at-a-glance record of employee transgressions, warnings, and disciplinary actions. Once you move beyond the initial oral warning, you need to write up a formal written documentation of the behavioral issue and your action. This document makes the employee aware that his behavior is being formally documented. It also serves as an official record of disciplinary action and can be referenced later to escalate the situation or to defend a termination decision in court. You should have a format for this documentation, providing fields for dates, times, rule violations, and more. Each documentation should include a detailed and specific account of what happened. You should also describe any performance issues that have resulted from the rule violations. Finally, set forth clear goals and expectations, as well as consequences that will occur if the employee’s behavioral issues continue. The employee should sign and date the document to indicate that he was made aware of the employer’s concerns.
- State the facts: At no point in the documentation process can you allow emotion or subjectivity to enter the equation. You can’t speculate about an employee’s bad behavior or the reasons behind it, and you can’t let your own opinions cloud the disciplinary process. Instead, documentation must state only the facts and must do so in the clearest way possible. These factual, analytical reports will protect your business from claims of bias, discrimination, and unfair treatment.
- Be willing to be harsher on more serious behavioral issues: Just because you need to be consistent in how you document doesn’t mean every offense has to follow the same disciplinary procedure. A gentle oral warning may be suitable for someone who has been late to work a few times. With more serious infractions like sexual harassment or showing up to work under the influence, you would be justified in skipping the oral warning and moving on to more formal documentation and punishment. This strategy emphasizes that your workplace has zero tolerance for certain behaviors.
- Allow employees to respond: Whenever you discipline an employee—whether through oral warning, formal documentation, or job suspension—you need to give that person an opportunity to respond. The employee might have a very different recollection of events than you or other managers and employees did. Allow her to respond to the documentation, formally and in writing, and include the response in her personnel file along with the violation document.
- Follow through on consequences: Even the most well-planned disciplinary strategy will fall apart if it lacks teeth. When you set expectations and define consequences for an employee guilty of a rule violation, you need to follow through. If you say future rule violations will result in termination, you need to be willing to go there. If you don’t follow through with disciplining your employees, everyone in your workplace is going to lose respect for the rules.
Employee discipline is no employer’s favorite thing. The act of reprimanding and punishing employees is uncomfortable, confrontational, and often bad for morale. However, when the alternative is letting bad behavior run rampant at your workplace, there is no question about the importance of discipline. Following the nine tips provided above will help you build a workplace discipline strategy that is effective, respectful, and legally sound.
Michael Klazema has been developing products for criminal background check and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com. He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.