Disciplining people is probably the least favorite thing that every manager has to do, aside from firing someone. While it will never be easy, here are some guidelines that may make it a little less stressful.
First, know your company rules and polices. Talk to management or HR before doing anything, if you have them as backstops. Have you had similar problems in the past? If so, how did you handle them? Be consistent to avoid setting yourself up for a wrongful discharge suit for discrimination. Be aware that ADA issues may come up and know how to handle them. Think through not only what is wrong but also how the employee can make it right. What do they need to do to fix the problem? What support can you provide? Is there any information you need to understand the entire problem? Make sure you understand the context of the problem as much as possible.
When it comes time for the interview, remember to do no harm. Don’t make things worse by accusing the employee or being antagonistic. Present the facts as you see them, as concretely as possible – “You have been 20-30 minutes late three mornings this week” rather than “You are always late!” Try to avoid emotions, especially anger; if you can’t, acknowledge them. Ask the employee for their perspective; it may be very informative.
Once you are sure you understand the problem accurately, use common sense. Giving friendly advice will solve the problem 90% of the time, and the employee feels valued, not reprimanded. Make sure that the employee knows what your expectations are; they may not be nearly as clear as you think. Ask what you can do to support the employee in the changes they must make. Do they need training? More supervision? A copy of a procedure? Problems with employees are seldom one-sided, so be open to the idea that you or the business may be contributing to the problem somehow.
Agree on a plan for improvement. Don’t over-react; if discipline is needed, take proportionate action only. Be consistent with discipline for similar offenses in the past, or across your company. Set deadlines and consequences for lack of improvement. Agree on how often you will check in with the employee, and then take the time to do so.
Document the meeting and your expectations. Documentation should be written, timely, date-stamped, specific (what happened, exactly), objective and unemotional, accurate, and honest. It does not have to be long or complicated, but it needs to create a paper trail that shows why you did what you did. Put the documentation in the employee’s personnel file, not in a back or manager’s file that the employee can’t see.
If the offenses are serious or you are concerned about repercussions, you might want a more formal document; it would certainly be a good idea for any terminations. Even if you don’t fill one out, the sections act as a nice checklist for your meetings. (Note that the Employee’s response really needs to be more than a checkmark in a box. That is not a dialogue, nor is it likely to drive changes.)
Documenting the meeting and discipline does a couple of things: obviously, it gives you evidence if there is a claim or lawsuit in the future. More immediately, it encourages you to think through the steps and make sure you have all the pieces: objective data of the problem, employee understanding of it, your expectations, areas where you will help, when things need to be done, etc. And creating it will slow you down a bit, so that you aren’t disciplining in the heat of anger.
Discipline will never be fun, but following these guidelines can make it a little easier and more constructive.