Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Be firm, fair when you need to discipline

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The war for talent, the high-stakes competition between organizations to recruit and retain the best employees, has some managers backed into a corner when it comes to discipline.

The concern is that if the manager needs to reprimand a worker about a performance issue, the employee may retaliate by quitting their job and jumping to a rival company. However, if the manager ignores the problem in the hope it will correct itself, it can actually cause the problem to snowball.

Despite the current business environment, a manager cannot afford to walk on eggshells. They must take the risk of giving employees corrective feedback and following up if that advice is not taken. Discipline is not an easy or pleasant task for anyone, which is why it is important to think of workplace discipline not as doling out punishment, but as a form of coaching that will help shape a better employee.

Many organizations have implemented progressive discipline, an effective means of applying incremental levels of discipline to those who violate the rules of the workplace. For example, Level 1 may be a verbal caution for a minor offence; Level 2 may be a stern written warning for more serious or repeat violations. Level 3 would be reserved for very serious matters or repeated rule violations that may result in a suspension. Level 4 would be employment dismissal.

Ultimately, each level will give the manager an opportunity to provide guidance to the employee on how they can correct the problem and improve their on-the-job-performance. The purpose of having this discussion should be to define employee expectations and reform non-complying behaviour so that everyone can enjoy the benefit of a safe, productive and satisfied workplace.

Progressive discipline reduces the risk of managers going too far with discipline and ensures that employees are given a fair chance to understand what went wrong and to fix their performance problems before issues escalate. Here are the steps a manager can take:

Address the problem. Although it is difficult to discipline anyone, you are not doing anyone a favour by sweeping such matters under the rug and allowing the individual in question to persist in unacceptable behaviours.

Establish expectations. Educate your people about the organization's policies, rules and expected behaviours so that they understand how to comply, are able to monitor themselves and can do everything possible to meet expectations.

Investigate the infraction. Before discussing disciplinary measures, a manager should ensure that a breach of the workplace rules has occurred and give all employees involved a chance to defend themselves or explain their perspective of the incident.

Consider the seriousness of the incident. The "punishment should fit the crime," so to speak, so weigh the seriousness of the incident (e.g. coming in late versus insubordination) before handing out the discipline to avoid coming across as too heavy-handed.

Take other factors into account. Do you have all the proven facts? Is the employee a repeat offender or someone with a record of similar incidents? Was the employee provoked or a victim of circumstance?

Decide on the appropriate discipline. Managers should be fair and consistent when it comes to dishing out discipline, especially ensuring that two employees are treated the same when it comes to the consequences of a violation.

Complete a record of the incident. The manager needs to complete a formal discipline notice, recording specific information about the offence, the investigation outcome, the disciplinary measures and finally, any consequences of further violations in the future.

Hold a discipline meeting. Meet the employee privately and explain how and why they are being disciplined, and what will happen if it occurs again. To ensure things go smoothly, invite an appropriate witness, record notes during the meeting and ask the employee to sign the discipline notice before giving them a copy.

Monitor behaviour. Keep an eye open for a change in the employee's behaviour. If there is no improvement, proceed to the next level of the discipline process. However, if you see a noticeable improvement, praise the employee and positively reinforce their efforts. It will boost the likelihood of it continuing and surely serve as a model for others to follow.

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2010 I2

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