One of the least favorite aspects of a supervisor’s job is having to discipline, and possibly terminate, an employee. It can be fraught with emotion and legal pitfalls if not done correctly. But there are ways to minimize the unpleasant and sometimes risky task.
Former corporate human resources manager Marco E. Garza, who today serves as assistant chair and faculty with the Department of Management at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, guided a group of business people through a process known as progressive discipline during a recent workshop hosted by the South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce.
“Progressive discipline is never fun,” Garza said. “I’ve never liked it. It’s never a good thing. You have to learn to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable because you are going to be uncomfortable.”
Progressive discipline involves increasingly serious conversations and warnings with an employee performing below standards, Garza said. However, it also ensures ample, documented feedback to employees that allows for improvement opportunities with emphasis on teaching and developing employees, not punishing them.
Garza said some problems can be avoided simply by making sure employees are fully aware of performance expectations at the time of hire. And supervisors, in doing their jobs, should be able to demonstrate the appropriate behavior. “Employees need to know the expectations,” he said. “It serves as a framework. And you can’t write somebody up if you are not role-modeling the behavior you expect.”
Even the most seasoned managers at some point will have to deal with personnel problems. Whether the issue is as straightforward as showing up for work on time or a more subtle situation dealing with inappropriate behavior, supervisors need to act quickly and follow a well-defined process to resolve the problem, Garza said.
When an employee is falling short of expectations, a good first step is an informal problem-solving session, where the behavior is identified in a conversation that sets goals on how to get the employee on the right track. If the employee is unable or unwilling to correct the behavior, then a more formal series of meetings needs to occur.
Although referred to as a verbal warning, this is the first time the employee’s behavior is documented in writing along with a formal review of expectations and goal-setting. And it should be held as quickly as possible. “Don’t waste time getting to the verbal warning,” Garza said. “It loses impact and seriousness the longer you wait.”
A formal written warning and, if needed, a final warning, are the next steps to attempt to resolve the issue, or to make a case for termination. During this phase the decision moves from the hands of the supervisor to the employee as it becomes clear that the employee must take the responsibility for corrective measures if he or she wants to remain employed.
The progressive discipline model also helps managers avoid unemployment claims or litigation in the form of wrongful termination lawsuits. Documentation of the unwanted behavior is critical to deflecting legal challenges. “When you start the written warnings you are starting to defend yourself,” Garza said. “The employer has the burden of proof in the form of documentation. Documentation is important if it goes to litigation.”
Managing the process can be an emotional time for supervisors, but Garza cautioned to keep a level head. Documentation should be specific and free of personal bias. Even emails and text messages are documents that could come back to haunt a manager. “So be careful with those communications,” he said. “You can do it but just write it knowing somebody could be printing it or a judge could be asking for it.”