A Quick Guide To Employee Discipline: What Every Leader Needs To Know

An effective manager does not need to be a tyrant or be continually waiting for an employee to make a mistake so they can be punished. Employees are not children; do not treat them like they are. If you think constant negative punishment will produce a positive result, you are sadly mistaken. More often than not, it will only breed resentment towards authority.

However, rules and order are an absolute must in the workplace. They make the work environment a safe and pleasant place for everyone. Managers must be able to maintain mutual respect and order in the workplace, and the first step in doing that is to have a plan or progressive discipline process set up that benefits everyone. Here are a few guidelines and tips regarding employee discipline that will significantly benefit you:

1. Know the Laws Regarding Employee Discipline

While there are no U.S. federal laws mandating acceptable disciplinary processes, there are a few that address disciplinary issues when it results in termination. As a manager or business owner, make sure you are up-to-date on your labor laws (or thatyour Human Resources department is). Even though employee discipline is primarily up to the discretion of the employer, there are still some legal aspects you need to consider. It is always wise to consult a lawyer to review your employee discipline policies so you avoid legal action. A few things to keep in mind are:

  • Make sure your company has a right to terminate at will
  • Make sure employees are clearly informed regarding what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is
  • Make sure managers remain impartial, fair, and consistent
  • Make sure to document employee behavioral and performance issues in their personnel file

2. Set Clear Rules for Employees

This was touched on briefly in the previous paragraph. It is absolutely vital that your employment policies and procedures are clearly presented to your employees to avoid any confusion regarding what is or is not acceptable workplace behavior. Do not merely assume that everyone knows what the company’s policies are. Employees need to know what is expected of them.

If you do not already have a written employee handbook, put one together immediately. Additionally, have each employee sign the handbook as acknowledgment and keep it for your records. A few topics you need to address:

    1. Attendance/Tardiness
    2. Attire and dress codes
    3. Behavior
    4. Productivity and work ethic 
    5. Mobile device usage
    6. Illegal behavior

3. Choose a Discipline Method

Based on your business, there are several types of discipline methods you can choose to implement. There are three basic types:

Progressive Discipline 

This is probably the most common type of corrective action for employee discipline. The severity of employee discipline increases if an employee fails to correct an issue. For example, this could be your progression:

-Verbal warning
-Written warning
-Final warning

Training or Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

This is a more rehabilitative-type approach. PIPs commonly have check-in points or specific goals that must be met.

Reassignment or Suspension

These are usually reserved for more serious behavioral issues or issues that do not warrant immediate termination. Usually termination is saved as a last resort.

4. Document!

If, for some reason, a disciplinary action turns into legal issues, the more documentation you have regarding the employee’s disciplinary history, the better. You should keep two different types of documentation:

For the Employee’s Permanent File

Keep a private, company record of employee disciplinary history. Include notes, the employee’s responses, steps taken, etc. This should be kept with their permanent file. In the case of ongoing issues, this also helps to determine a pattern of behavior. Note: Be sure to inform employees that you will do this somewhere in your employee handbook.

For Written Warnings

If you choose to issue written warnings to your employees, be sure to keep a copy of these notifications as proof that the employee was given ample time to respond and was given the appropriate number of warnings.

5. Be Consistent

While setting employee rules and guidelines are necessary for any business, it is even more important to follow through on enforcing them. Rules do no good if they are not followed and enforced. Consistency is vital to avoid any accusation of impropriety or favoritism. As a side note, ensure that managers and team leaders are held to the same standards as the rest of the employees.  

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