The One Conversation to Have With a Troublesome Employee

An easier approach to discipline that respects the employee and your manager while resolving problems

The One Conversation to Have With a Troublesome Employee

Sue Bingham

It’s a great irony that the discipline policy preferred by most companies is called “progressive.” The word progressive means “making favorable progress or change;” nothing is further from the truth with this type of policy.

A progressive discipline policy is about punishment — not improvement. This process was created to protect companies from adverse legal rulings, mostly at the advice of legal counsel. The irony is that a claim or charge can be adjudicated in favor of the employee — not because of what the terminated employee has or hasn’t done, but because the company failed to follow the myriad details outlined in its own policies.

Most managers denounce their company’s progressive discipline policy as lengthy, overengineered and ineffective. For the bad apple who shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, this process takes far too long. And a small minority of abusers use the policy like a playbook and keep ahead of the game by changing the performance issue that is violated. They also know the time required for the last warning to be removed so they can do it again. Here’s how it works:

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Typically, progressive discipline policies are composed of several steps, with each step involving an employee and his/her manager and eventually witnesses. In each step, the communication is routinely one-way and parent-child, ending with the threat: “Failure to improve will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

  • Step 1 is a verbal warning. The word “warning” is correct because the discussion ends with a threat. The angry employee then leaves.
  • Step 2 is just like the first step but is now called a written warning. Again it ends with a threat (in a more serious tone) and the angry, dispirited or apathetic employee leaves after being asked to sign the warning.
  • Step 3 varies among companies. It may be a second written warning or an unpaid suspension from work. The employee is sent home (which seems much like sending a child to his or her room), and the employee and his or her family are being punished because the company is withholding pay. 
  • Some companies even have a Step 4 — a third and final written warning. This is usually a tense and negative interaction between the manager and employee. It exists to create a paper trail that will hold up in an unemployment claim or court of law once the employee is terminated (at this stage, the decision has already been made to fire the employee).

Punishment is not instructive. It cannot teach a new behavior or solve a problem. The improvement or desired behavior will never be permanently learned unless an employee and his or her supervisor work together to solve the problem. 

In some traditional companies, equipment is treated better than employees. Using a progressive disciplinary approach is like banging on a machine to make it run better.

Here’s a better way

Assume that the vast majority of employees are good people who want the company to succeed. They are adults who own homes, raise children and serve in their communities. If a problem develops and is brought to their attention, their desire is to solve it.

A performance coaching approach is based on this assumption. If a problem arises, those involved will want to solve it. This coaching meeting has an agenda the manager partially prepares in advance to be clear and concise about the problem. When prepared, the manager can state the issue, usually in under 15 seconds, and then ask, “What’s going on?” This turns the problem-solving conversation immediately over to the employee to discover the cause of the performance issue.

This is not a “step” process. This is an adult conversation, and the ending depends on the employee’s response. For example:

Cooperative: If the employee is cooperative (most are), he or she accepts responsibility and offers an action or commitment to address the cause — problem solved. The action or solution is not provided by the manager. The manager helps follow through on the employee’s plan.

Uncooperative: The employee may be uncooperative, meaning he or she isn’t forthcoming regarding the cause, blames others or simply avoids responding as an adult to the manager’s questions. When this happens, the manager reflects what he or she is seeing and hearing. Most people become cooperative at this point. If not, the manager will ask the employee to go home for the rest of the day. Unlike a suspension, this time off is paid because the employee’s job that day is to decide about his or her employment. Is this a job he or she wants? Can he or she meet expectations? If so, the employee is expected to return with a sincere commitment statement or plan of action. If the employee determines the job is not for him or her, the company processes his or her resignation. (A surprising number of people make the decision to change.)

Disrespectful: Occasionally an employee can go beyond uncooperative and become downright disrespectful. There is no room for disrespectful behavior in this process. The manager reflects what he or she is seeing or hearing, and if the employee continues to be disrespectful, the manager ends the meeting. The employee is sent home and informed that the manager will call in the morning to let the employee know if he or she still has a job. 

In all three instances, the problem is solved — usually with less than two conversations.

This process does have documentation. When a manager lacks confidence that the improvement will be made, a letter is sent to the employee that documents both sides of the conversation including the employee’s plan of action. It is kept in a company file. When the employee’s response results in resignation or termination, a report detailing the conversations is submitted.

Avoid legal issues

With this approach, the legal process is now focused on the employee’s response and subsequent actions versus whether the detailed progressive discipline steps were followed by the company. 

As competition for good people becomes more intense, companies that treat their employees with respect gain the advantage. Managers are then free to use the leadership, judgment and communication skills for which they’re paid.



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