How to Handle Disciplinary Meetings & Failed Disciplinary Action

December 4, 2023
How to Handle Disciplinary Meetings & Failed Disciplinary Action

Taking disciplinary action against an employee can be uncomfortable, but giving them the opportunity to correct their behavior or performance can make them a productive member of the team.

Know what steps to take during a disciplinary meeting with your employee

Every business owner faces the prospect of disciplining staff at one point or another. These meetings can be, at best, uncomfortable — and at worst, volatile. Managing the disciplinary process professionally and in compliance with the law is a necessary skill for all business owners and HR professionals.

The goal of these meetings shouldn’t be a confrontation, it should be a correction. With that in mind, the process can be professional and productive.

Disciplinary meetings are difficult for everyone: the employee is no less uncomfortable than you are. By the time a situation has risen to the level of a disciplinary meeting, the employee should have been warned, at least once, that their behavior or conduct is unacceptable. If verbal warnings have gone unheeded, disciplinary action is warranted.

Termination isn’t the goal

The goal of a disciplinary meeting isn’t to prepare the employee for termination. It’s to correct their behavior, mistake, or problem so the employee can be a productive member of the team. You’ve invested time, resources, and training in each employee — no matter how new or seasoned they are.

Your first choice should be to protect that investment and rehabilitate the employee, if at all possible. When you discuss and schedule the meeting with the staffer, emphasize that your goal is to fix the problem — together.

Preparing for a disciplinary meeting

Problematic conduct should be outlined in your employee handbook. While some rules and policies are listed — like not harassing coworkers — others may not be specified (like getting to work on time). Be ready to support your position regarding the infraction with a copy of the handbook you’ve issued to employees and an acknowledgment form if it’s applicable.

If there is no specific policy you’re citing, be ready to defend your position overall: to make your case that the conduct is unacceptable. Workers, for example, are normally expected to call in or email to say they’re taking the day off because they’re sick. Not calling in or e-mailing is not only inconsiderate, it’s unfair to the rest of the staff who do make that effort.

If performance is the issue, you might not have a specific policy on what is considered acceptable. Based on the training the employee has received and how long they’ve been on the job, however, you should have basic benchmarks for comparison.

When it comes to underperforming employees, be ready to outline where they’re missing productivity goals and objectives and where they should be with regard to performance.

Starting the disciplinary meeting

Once you’ve established a time to meet with the employee, lay out the problem specifically. You’ll want to outline the following:

  • What the infraction was
  • When it occurred
  • Why it’s not acceptable behavior

Ask the employee what, if anything, they would like to discuss with regard to the incident or action. They may have a legitimate defense: be willing and open to listening to their side of the issue.

“I was up late partying and overslept, so I didn’t bother to call in sick,” is not a legitimate defense. “I was involved in a car accident and was rushed to the hospital,” is.

They may suggest their lack of performance is due to missed or insufficient training. That may be legitimate. Assuming that everyone who made it through a training or onboarding process is 100% ready and up to speed is a mistake: some employees need a bit of extra help to get over the hump.

Be ready to offer additional assistance if needed and warranted.

What not to do in a disciplinary meeting

Don’t let excuses or justifications go on indefinitely; an hour-long diatribe about how hard it is to wake up in the morning isn’t productive for anyone. You’ll want to hear what they have to say, but not spend an hour with them repeating it. When they have nothing new to offer, let them know you’ve listened but it’s time to move forward.

Don’t let the situation escalate — the goal of the meeting is to correct the behavior or problem, not have it turn into a crying fest. Remind the employee your aim is correction, and you’re meeting with them to come up with a plan to do so. They’ll need to compose themselves so you can move forward.

Create a performance improvement plan

Whatever the issue, it’s time to agree on an action plan and timeline. For example, if performance is the problem and additional training is warranted, determine when and how the assistance will be provided.

If tardiness is the issue, tell your employees they must be at work on time beginning immediately.

Be reasonable but firm. “I’ll try to do better” isn’t a sufficient response. The employee must agree to change their behavior or work with the company to improve their performance.

The reason for the meeting, again, is correction — not promises or generalizations. Outline the problem, agree on the solution, and set a specific timeline for change.

Outline consequences

You’ll want the employee to clearly understand what the consequences of not making a change will be. For many employers, progressive disciplinary steps are followed. They may include, in subsequent order:

  • A warning
  • A suspension
  • Termination, if the behavior hasn’t been corrected over time

Employees must understand the meeting and disciplinary action aren’t empty gestures. There needs to be a motive for them to change. Your aim is to set reasonable goals and expectations to alter their behavior and let them know there will be consequences if those aren’t met.

Asking for change that is open-ended with no timeline or outline of further steps is unproductive. You want to be specific with the problem, the solution, and the time frame in which it must be achieved.

Document the meeting

For your information and protection and for the employees, document what was discussed and agreed upon. The timeline for correction should be specifically included so there’s no confusion over what’s necessary and by when. For documentation, some employers use templates they fill out during the meeting.

You’ll want the document signed by both you and the employee. Make sure to provide the employee with a copy so they are clear about expectations and goals.

Schedule a follow-up meeting

It bears repeating: the goal of the meeting is to correct behaviors and reclaim the employee. Schedule a follow-up meeting (include the date and time in the meeting notes you provide to the employee), to discuss their progress and reassess the situation.

Why schedule a follow-up? It sends a message that you’re serious about the issue and invested in the employee. You’re willing to take additional time to ensure they’re on track.

When you next meet, talk about any changes that have been made and, hopefully, congratulate the employee for the turn-around.

If there has been no progress or change, the follow-up meeting may include a second warning to the employee that includes even more consequences. Again, you’ll want to document the problem, set a new timeline for correction, and schedule another follow-up meeting to readdress the issue.

Disciplinary meetings don’t have to be difficult and uncomfortable. If you go into the meeting with the goal of salvaging an employee and correcting a problem, you may find that they can turn around and be highly productive.

When the employee understands you’re willing to give them a chance to fix the issue, rather than letting them go, they may be more willing to change and more motivated to become a reliable, long-term employee.

Failed Disciplinary Action: What to Do When Your Employee Doesn’t Improve?

Now, let’s imagine that you’ve given your employees chances to correct their behavior or performance, but they haven’t improved. What do you do next?

Consider these 3 things before terminating an employee

You’ve invested time, resources, and energy in each employee — from new hires to those who have been with you since the beginning. Some have become friends. Others, members of your business family. However, problems have arisen.

Attempts to resolve them have been unsuccessful and now you’re at the stage of wondering what to do next. Do you let them go, continue trying to correct the problem, or just learn to live with it? The answer, as with so many things, is “it depends.”

When employees make mistakes, underperform, or violate company policies and rules, progressive corrective or disciplinary actions should take place. They typically start with verbal warnings but can escalate if the situation warrants.

Employees who don’t heed warnings or disciplinary steps make themselves vulnerable to even more corrections that can ultimately result in them being let go. But since business owners have to make the final decision, many hope the problem will just go away. It generally won’t.

Before you make that final determination, there are 3 things to consider.

1. Why hasn’t a correction been made?

Some issues are easily resolved — take an earlier train and get to work on time. Others require more effort and assistance.

When an employee is underperforming because they simply won’t take the time to do their work accurately, the solution is their responsibility. If they underperform because they’ve been inadequately trained or not given the tools they need to function, the solution is up to you.

Before you decide to let a staff member go, remember the investment you made in them. Is there something else you could do to salvage the relationship? Imagine you have an otherwise good employee who has problems dealing professionally with customers, for example. Is there a way to move them away from a front-facing position?

If not, are there training modules you could offer or suggest to help them bolster their customer relations skills? In some cases, balancing a small investment in a training course against the cost of rehiring and retraining a new employee is worthwhile.

You may have taken every step to recover the employee, but still, nothing has worked. One final consideration might be to ask them what they would suggest. If all your efforts have been futile, what is their solution to the problem?

If they have an idea that’s reasonable, it might be useful to try it — even if only on a limited or pilot basis. If it works, everyone wins; if not, you’ve given it your best shot. Your decision has been made if they can’t offer any solutions to their problem.

2. Is the employee worth it?

Your best sales representative brings in the bulk of your revenue — clearly, they’re an asset to the team. But the downside is they are a serial harasser. They annoy others in the office with unwanted advances or comments, yet their conduct on sales calls is impeccable.

When you consider the clients you’d lose if you let them go, you cringe. But when you look at the risk they pose for harassment or discrimination claims, you break into a cold sweat.

In many instances, employees who feel they’re irreplaceable won’t take correction seriously. If discipline hasn’t worked and training hasn’t resulted in the necessary change, you know the choice you have to make.

Putting it off, even in the short term, is a mistake. The longer they’re on the payroll, the higher the chance of a claim or lawsuit. You only have to ask yourself how much of the revenue they bring in would be consumed with legal fees to make the right choice.

3. What would be the consequence of losing them?

No one really is irreplaceable. Even Steve Jobs was forced out of the company he built. Your staff members may think no one can do their job, but ask yourself: if they won the lottery tomorrow, wouldn’t they quit and leave you high and dry? Would you have to close your doors permanently? Of course not — you’d figure it out.

Cross-training is the first step to insulate your company against the “irreplaceables.” Making sure that at least one other person knows at least the basics of what others do is critical — and not just in case they hit the jackpot.

When staff members go on vacation or if they fall ill, you need coverage. It also gives employees a chance to become more valuable and more skilled, and it may even spark interest in another position or department. Room to grow for employees is a plus, no matter what size your business.

If letting go of the employee has no real downside, ask what the upside would be: A more pleasant working environment, fewer customer complaints, fewer mistakes, and returns? If disciplinary efforts haven’t worked and there’s no real disadvantage to firing them, what are you waiting for?

Terminating an employee is never easy. Far too many owners put off this important business decision because they’re fearful of the fallout or uncomfortable with the deed itself. You’ve made every effort to salvage the employee through disciplinary actions and training and they haven’t turned the problem around. They made the decision: it’s up to you to finalize it and replace them with a valued member of the team, rather than a drain.

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