One task every single business owner must tackle at some point is correcting or disciplining employees. The task can seem daunting, and it’s not uncommon to worry about the confrontation—even losing sleep over fears that the conversation could turn unpleasant or may not even end up resolving the problem. We've all been there.
I’ve discovered five basic steps to effective workplace discipline to ensure you run a tight ship, crewed by happy employees.
1. Ask your employees how they prefer to handle problems. Start on the very first day, before there's even a hint of a problem. If you acknowledge that problems may arise, and if your goal is handling these problems with minimal drama and maximum results, you set the tone for your office. Just ask the question: “How should I bring things to your attention?” or “How do you prefer to deal with problems that arise?” If you involve your staff from the beginning, you’ll derive two main benefits—first, you’ll learn what style of confrontation they prefer, and second, you’ll have a plan in place before a problem occurs.
2. Document your employees’ preferences and keep records in their HR files. You may be surprised at the variety of responses you’ll get. Some folks prefer direct and immediate correction. Some staff members will prefer private off-site meetings to avoid office gossip. You may find that some employees like to finish the workday and wrap up with a private meeting in the boss’s office. The point is that one size does not fit all here. Good managers learn how to handle each employee individually, in the way that gets everyone back on track as quickly as possible.
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3. When a problem arises, use the tactic your employee prefers. Whether it’s an early morning meeting or an email detailing the issue, call attention to the fact that you’re respecting your employee's wishes. When your staff knows that you respect them enough to modify your methods, they’re much more open to hearing what you have to say. It’s far better for them to hear your message rather than getting stuck on the way you deliver that message. Explain the situation—inappropriate behavior, insufficient progress toward a goal—and if you’ve primed your staff to expect that difficult matters will be handled calmly and in a way that makes them feel comfortable, you have the best shot at actually resolving the problem.
4. Document the incident. If your administrative assistant got busted for filling out his NCAA brackets on the job, you may not need to make a record of it. If that admin cursed at a client, though, you should start creating your paper trail. Write up a quick summary of the meeting about the problem, have the employee sign the summary and get ready to move on to resolving the issue. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of documenting important incidents; it’s worth taking the time to protect your business from frivolous lawsuits and illegitimate unemployment claims down the road. It also indicates to your employees that you’re serious about requiring appropriate behavior and excellent performance.
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5. Discuss the consequences and remedy, and schedule a follow-up. Depending on the type of incident, the best way to prevent future problems is to check back in with your employee to ensure that problems have been corrected. If a sales representative is having trouble making goals, schedule a follow-up meeting to assess his or her progress. If there’s an attendance problem in the warehouse, agree to meet again in two weeks to review your employee’s time card. The point is to move beyond simply identifying a problem to working through a solution. If a project was completed but was littered with errors, make time to review it again with the employee and reinforce the correct way to do business.
The fact is that confrontation is inevitable. You will have to discipline employees from time to time, but the good news is that these confrontations can be conducted without drama and focus on solutions. Letting your employees know that you’re thoughtful enough to respect their preferences and be constructive in your criticism is essential in addressing problems and moving forward.
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