Disciplining an employee isn’t limited to the traditional three choices: verbal warning, written warning and firing. When you must deal with a difficult employee, you need to give yourself the flexibility of these six choices:
1. Oral Coaching. When a problem first develops, speak to the employee about the problem, briefly. Ask the employee to suggest a right course of action. Discuss this and reach a conclusion with the employee regarding the change or the action the employee will make. Get the employee to commit to this. Make a written notation in the employee’s personnel file, with the date of the verbal coaching and the commitment from the employee.
Traditionally, this first step has been called the “Warning.” But oral coaching is more than just a verbal warning. In this step you want to get the employee’s full understanding of what’s been wrong and how the employee will set it right. And most important, you want to get the employee’s commitment to change.
2. Written Counseling. This choice involves oral coaching. But it ends with the important factors covered in oral coaching — especially the employee’s commitment to change — put in writing in memo form. The employee signs the memo, acknowledging receiving a copy of it. The original copy of this memo goes in the employee’s personnel file.
3. Written Agreement. This choice formalizes the important factors covered in #2 above, written counseling, and goes beyond them by adding a formal recognition of the consequences if the employee fails to change or take action
These are the essential elements in a written agreement: A brief statement of the wrong behavior or poor performance. A statement that clearly and specifically spells out the required correct behavior or performance. A specific, limited time frame for the employee to comply or change. (In almost every case, this time frame should be immediate. As in, “…effective immediately, Chris will…”) The consequences to the employee if the correction does not occur. An acknowledgment that the employee understands. The employee’s signature and the date signed.
4. Suspension with Pay. Normally, this choice is used when a situation calls for the removal of one or more employees from the workplace. This may be protective action taken by a manager or supervisor to eliminate an immediate problem involving one or more employees (such as a physical fight) and to allow proper time for investigation before taking further corrective action.
Note: In suspending an employee, be very specific and record the details in writing and have the employee sign the written suspension notice. Example: “You are suspended as of (time/date) for (number) days and you are to report back to work at (time/date).” Place the signed notice in the employee’s personnel file. If the employee does not return to work at the time and date specified (without prior permission) the employee has abandoned the job.
5. Suspension without Pay. This choice is used in cases where an employee has already received coaching, counseling and even signed an agreement, or where a violation of a work rule is severe (such as initiating a physical fight, reporting to work intoxicated, gross insubordination of a supervisor).
6. Termination. Caution: Don’t fire an employee in a fit of emotional anger. Terminate an employee only after reviewing all the facts involved in circumstances leading up to a possible termination. If possible, have a disinterested, uninvolved third party review the pending termination. If the situation is serious and if it could possibly prompt some kind of legal action by the employee, consult with an attorney familiar with employment law. Never use the word “fired” to an employee you feel like terminating, as in “You’re FIRED!” If your emotions are this strong, better to say, “You’re suspended.” Then take 24 hours to cool down and review all the circumstances that might justify a termination.
What if an Employee Refuses to Sign a Memo or Agreement?
What can you do when an employee refuses to sign a memo, agreement, or notice you prepare in one of these disciplinary steps? Don’t get angry. Don’t get sidetracked into an argument with the employee. You have three options:
- Above the signature space, write: “I acknowledge receipt.” Tell the employee the signature simply acknowledges receipt of the memo or notice.
- The employee usually is refusing to sign because he or she asserts “I don’t agree with this, and I’m not signing anything like this.” So tell the employee he or she doesn’t need to sign and can write down on the sheet his or her own statement. The employee almost always will write out his or her position. What this gives you is nearly as good as the employee’s signature, and sometimes better than the signature. Because the memo or notice now has several words or sentences on it that are written in the employee’s handwriting, which is evidence the employee received and read the document.If the document is a written agreement, obviously the employee must sign it. If the employee refuses, there is no agreement and this gives you immediate justification to suspend or terminate the employee.
- Have a witness present during the meeting with the employee. Have the witness sign the document, as a witness to what was discussed and agreed to by the supervisor and the employee.
[NOTE: Information and guidance in this article is intended to provide accurate and helpful information on the subjects covered. It is not intended to provide a legal service for readers’ individual needs. For legal guidance in your specific situations, always consult with an attorney who is familiar with employment law and labor issues.]