Manager Skills Series: Effective discipline

Guest post by Ken Burnett, VP/Director of Training and Business Development, Bank of American Fork

This series is written from experience and is part of Bank of American Fork’s management training program. The program embraces the philosophy that management is a skill-based job, and managers need to learn specific skills to be successful.

I am happy that with a title like “effective discipline,” you have made it this far into the article. Let me put the title in a clearer context: effective discipline in the corporate management sense isn’t primarily about punishment; it is about changing behavior to make employees productive.  Yes, there are times when termination is required but let’s start at the beginning.

Set expectations             
The best way to avoid discipline is to set expectations of behavior and communicate them using multiple channels.  Employees should have immediate access to their performance and managers should foster a culture that reinforces expected performance.  Consistently setting expectations helps employees know when their performance is not up to standard and makes the discipline process more manageable.  

Access to performance means that employees are empowered to check on how they are performing at any time.  For example, if John is responsible for performing task X at a 90% accuracy rate on a daily basis, but the reporting is done on a monthly basis, he won’t be able to measure and adjust his performance daily. The process is out of whack. Employees also need to know that managers are monitoring both good and bad performance. Good performance should be praised and rewarded publicly and poor performance should be dealt with privately.

Importance of dealing with performance
Organizational culture is a critical factor in associate performance.  Issues that require discipline are inevitable if the organization’s culture tolerates poor performance. Using the example above, if John is performing at 70% and this poor performance is not addressed and everyone knows, the rest of the organization’s performance will degrade.  For managers, the cost of not dealing with performance issues is very high.  The biggest cost is that managers will be seen as indecisive and the employees lose trust.

Any time you think you have a performance issue, the first stop is your human resource department.  Human Resources will keep you and the organization out of legal trouble and set up a game plan to start the process.  A good manager is consistently documenting both good and poor performance issues with his/her team.  The documentation is necessary for either a promotion or a good review, or written/verbal warning or termination.   

Progressive discipline
Progressive discipline is a process for dealing with job-related behavior that does not meet expected and communicated performance standards.  The primary purpose for progressive discipline is to provide a structured corrective action process to improve and prevent a recurrence of undesirable behavior and/or performance.  Obviously, in certain cases, the offense is serious enough that immediate termination is the appropriate solution. 

The process features increasingly formal efforts to provide constructive feedback to the employee so he or she can correct the problem. The goal of progressive discipline is to improve employee performance.  Evaluate these three criteria when determining the most effective level of disciplinary action:

1. The severity of the offense

2. The employee’s past performance and/or warning records

3. The organization’s past practice when dealing with this situation

Communicating to the employee
An organization reserves the right to determine what discipline will be imposed in each individual situation. A disciplinary procedure should include the following steps if the action does not require immediate termination:

1. The associate must know the nature of the problem or violation.

2. The employee must know the expectations and steps they must take to improve the performance or resolve the problem.

3. The employee must have a defined or ongoing expected date to improve the corrective action.

4. The employee must understand the consequences. For example, failures to address issues as outlined could result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.

Consequences for performance that require discipline are either quick or the start of a process.  These may be illegal behavior, immoral behavior, issues that put your business’ reputation in jeopardy or issues that lead to other types of risk.  Every employee must know the behaviors or performance problems that lead to termination.  After a review of the facts and HR’s input, a manager should meet with the problematic employee to discuss termination. 

HR should conduct every termination.  During terminations be careful not to get hooked by the employee’s emotions.  Be sympathetic, but remember that the employee has violated the organization’s trust.  As a manager you need to protect the organization and those employees who are performing well.  For a termination meeting, the objectives to remember are:

• To protect the organization’s legal and moral responsibility

• To ensure the affected employee hears and understands the message, knows what to do next and is treated with dignity and respect

• To minimize the negative impact a termination can have among remaining employees

Some skills Ken has talked about are employee development, communication, coaching employees, managing change and strategic planning. What other manager skills do you want to know more about? Tell us in the comments!

Ken Burnett is vice president/director of training and business development for Bank of American Fork. He is responsible for training more than 300 employees on a variety of topics, including coaching and feedback for dozens of senior managers within the organization.

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