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How To ... Discipline Employees

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by Patrick Nolan

SBJ Contributing Writer

Disciplining employees is the hardest thing a supervisor has to do, said Lynne Haggerman, president of Career Services. "More often than not it seems supervisors avoid counseling when they shouldn't avoid it."

There are generally two types of counseling sessions that take place in the workplace, formal and informal, Haggerman said. Informal counseling is for the day-to-day issues that are important enough to mention, but not requiring documentation to be placed in the permanent personnel file.

Formal counseling is generally for issues that need to be placed into the main personnel file. What is important enough for formal counseling varies with the company. "The more serious issues are the ones you want to counsel," Haggerman said.

R. Paul Thomlinson, director of research at Burrell Behavioral Health, said, "You need to differentiate between discipline and punishment." Employee discipline, like family discipline, sends a message, Thomlinson said.

That message may say certain behavior is inappropriate. However, frequently they inform people as to what is not appropriate without telling them what is appropriate, he added.

Mike Stropp, office sales manager for Snelling Personnel Services, said many future problems can be avoided in the interviewing process. "During the interview, we make the prospective employee accountable and provide them with our expectations in writing."

"Orientation should be a good introduction into the culture of the place," Thomlinson said. "It is frequently not used in that capacity."

Orientation and training ranks second among Haggerman's six steps to avoiding the necessity of entering disciplinary counseling. Step No. 1 is hiring the right person. This can be accomplished by verifying experience and skills. "I shouldn't be hired as a brain surgeon," Haggerman said. "That would be hiring the wrong person for the job."

Stropp said he tests employees during the orientation stage, using what he called a Skills Aptitude Requirement test. This test lets the employer know if the employee has the skills to do the job.

Once you hire the right person and provide orientation and training, you have to give people the resources to do the job, which is step No. 3. Not providing the resources people need to succeed can lead to decreased morale, Haggerman said. Step No. 4 is having clear policies and procedures.

"If there is a problem, we would usually sit down and ask what the problem is," Stropp said. "Maybe we didn't communicate the requirements clearly or maybe the employee is having a personal problem that is affecting performance and needs to be addressed," he added.

"Most people need clear guidance," Thomlinson said, and the employer should set out what's expected and set goals with the staff. Though it has fallen out of fashion, managing by objective is a great example of how to do this.

One way to help encourage an employee to change their behavior is goal setting, Haggerman said. Sit down with the employee and work on the goal together, then work as a team to figure out what can be done to achieve that goal.

Step No. 5 is to be an exceptional supervisor, and step No. 6 is to empower employees to do their own regular introspection, Haggerman said.

As John Maxwell once said, "People are changed, not by coercion or intimidation, but by example."

"There is nothing your people won't do for you if you make them feel like they are useful, worthwhile people," Thomlinson said. Before you can counsel employees, the employees have to honestly believe that you care, Haggerman said.

Otherwise, the counseling may come off like punishment, causing the employee to feel discouraged and possibly seek another job.

To be effective, three things must be present in discipline, Thomlinson said. It must be fair. It must be consistent. And there must be consequences which are both fair and consistent. "Punishing is the least effective means. Employee of the month programs have done more for productivity and

morale than any punishment ever can,"

Thomlinson said.

You don't have to look inside yourself when you are being punished, Thomlinson said. And the behavior will most likely recur when the threat of punishment is gone or reduced.

Before you enter a counseling meeting, make sure you have everything in writing, Thomlinson said, including both positive and negative feedback. Sandwiching a negative between two positive things eases reception.

"If it's not written down, it didn't happen," Haggerman said. "Document everything."

You should treat your employees the way you want to be treated, Thomlinson said. "Use some of that precious management time to schedule regular counseling or feedback sessions. If we focus more on what you should do, as opposed to what you should not do, we would get 2 1/2 to three times more work done."

He added, "Any time you have a problem employee, the supervisor has in some way contributed to that."

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