Performance Management and the Disciplinary Conversation
by Ken Chapman, Ph.D.
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Almost inevitably, one or more of the people who report to you will act in an unacceptable way. An hourly worker is repeatedly late; a service rep blows up at a customer; a manager makes an inappropriate comment to a report. Occasionally, such actions are so egregious that the offending employee must be discharged. Far more often, though, the faulty behavior doesn’t call for such an extreme step, but it is up to the leader to take appropriate corrective action.
The first thing to be clear about here is what you want to achieve. Should the goal of company disciplinary policies be to punish, to mete out some form of justice? Or instead should it be to propel employees toward better behavior? Consider that the words “discipline” and “disciple” share an etymological root focused on teaching or molding. As opposed to dealing with the occasional outrageous offender, the more common challenge for leaders is to use a performance management conversation to foster improvement in a team member who has made a mistake. Here’s how:
Before a Problem Occurs —
Give credit when credit is due. The first prerequisite for a productive disciplinary conversation is that it be an exception to the usual pattern of praise and recognition. Put another way: Disciplinary actions should be only a small number of a leader’s formal contacts with employees. Most employees are competent, well intentioned, and self-disciplined. If you provide feedback only, or even primarily, when they stumble, you’re missing out on a significant opportunity. We have long known that positive reinforcement is the most effective method of affecting conduct. Make a point to tell your people when they’ve done something right — even if that something is relatively minor. Do it right after the commendable act, and do it regularly.
If they’re consistently performing below your expectations, let them know that too.
It might seem obvious to you, the leader, that an employee’s performance is sub par — but does the employee know it? In the absence of regular feedback and suggestions, most people tend to believe they’re better than they truly are. A recent study found that fully eighty percent of American men thought they were in the top ten percent of all men when it came to athletic ability.
Communicate company rules well in advance. Too often, management prefers to leave its disciplinary policy unspoken, perhaps fearing it will appear unfriendly and overly ready to penalize. But the majority of employees, who will never be disciplined, will be heartened to know there are some boundaries you don’t step over. If they perceive the company will act firmly in the face of poor behavior, they will be relieved they won’t have to carry the load for poor performers.
When a Problem Occurs —
Don’t act when you are angry. Strong emotions cloud judgment. What’s more, angry accusations beget an angry response, which turns the employee’s focus away from his actions (or lack thereof) and toward the leader’s response.
Reprimand in private. Most people fear public embarrassment more than discipline itself. If you publicly injure an employee’s reputation, you reduce the likelihood that her performance will improve.
Probe to determine whether the problem is with the employee or with the working conditions. Conditions that interfere with someone’s ability to do his job are often difficult to detect simply because we’re so used to them. But a bit of reengineering might succeed in freeing up an employee to perform well. Ask if anything is hindering her work. This line of questioning demonstrates that you’re interested in performance, not blame.
Frame your complaint specifically, in terms of observed behavior. Lay out the difference between desired and actual behavior in a clear and unambiguous statement. Then present it to the employee for discussion. This statement of the problem should be unarguable, so the dialogue will center on identifiable actions on the part of the employee. For example, don’t describe the problem as “a bad attitude” and don’t assume that’s the case. A leader cannot know what goes on in an employee’s head nor can she make an accusation about attitudes stick as a defense in a suit for wrongful termination. But you can observe behavior to determine if it improves, worsens, or stays the same.
Cite the business reasons behind a policy.
If an employee tries to rationalize a transgression as “no big deal,” you should be able to defend the sound business grounds for a company’s policy–for example, the impact on profitability, fellow employees, or departmental deadlines. If you are unable to do so, perhaps the policy is at fault, not the employee.
Gain the employee’s commitment to change. Ask for the employee’s agreement to improve her behavior. Most employees will make this commitment once their shortcomings are confronted in a calm, professional manner. If she resists, reiterate the reasons behind company policy. A personal pledge is more effective and more lasting than a boss’s decree to “shape up.” Furthermore, by gaining a commitment to change, you shift the focus of any future discussions from company policy to personal integrity. Straying from the latter is much more difficult to explain away.
Coach — but don’t counsel. In a disciplinary conversation, what you’re trying to do is to coach the employee to improve his performance. Do this by clarifying expectations and making him understand his responsibility to act appropriately. Counseling him on his personal problems is entirely different and should be left to professionals. Though it may well be appropriate to give the employee “a good listening to” as concerns his or her personal problems, it is not appropriate to attempt to advise the employee about such matters.
If a Problem Remains —
Sometimes an employee will fail to improve, or will backslide. The following actions up the ante and can ultimately lead to a justified and defensible termination. Yet they also leave the door open for a change of heart on the part of the employee and the real possibility of permanent improvement in behavior.
Issue an oral reminder. Meet with the employee to remind her of her promise to change. Be specific both in describing her failure to live up to that commitment and the company’s performance expectations. Be sure to state this is the first step of the formal disciplinary process, and outline subsequent stages. Also be sure to document the meeting afterward, its spoken nature notwithstanding.
Proceed to a written reminder. In essence, repeat the meeting in which you delivered the oral reminder, adding the facts of the continuing bad behavior and explaining that documentation of this meeting will go on permanent file. A copy should be given to the employee, along with an explicit description of what happens next. Rather than issuing a preprinted “turkey ticket,” write a memo after the meeting describing your specific concerns, the steps taken thus far, and the employee’s response.
Consider having the employee take a paid leave of absence. Many companies have instituted a one-day leave of absence, with pay, at this stage in the disciplinary process. You might ask: Why pay for continued poor behavior? This concept, originated by psychologist John Huberman two decades ago, has several advantages. It keeps the focus on the employee’s behavior. It shows the company’s desire to gain improvement rather than simply punish. It can transform anger, which employees typically feel during an unpaid leave, into appropriate guilt. For these reasons, companies using paid leave of absence have consistently found that costs associated with disciplinary procedures have dropped; employees file fewer grievances and win fewer of those they do file.
Issue an ultimatum. A key part of Huberman’s approach, which is known as “positive discipline” or “discipline without punishment,” is giving employees a choice: During the leave of absence, they are told, think over the company’s performance demands and either commit the very next day to meeting them, or go elsewhere. In this way, the decision-making leave, as it is termed, is a far tougher response than an unpaid probation. Instead of being able to cast a leader as the heavy, an employee is forced to take responsibility for his actions and their outcome.
Terminate. Discharge should not be viewed as the final step of the disciplinary process. It is the failure of the process. Experience has shown that most people placed on a decision-making leave come back resolved to correct their behavior. When they do not, termination should be the inevitable consequence of that choice. A company following the procedures above will be justified — ethically and legally — in moving intransigent employees out and moving on.