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Discipline and performance: seven questions for a manager

Asleep on the jobWhen employees let you down, when they go against your explicit instructions or a known policy, when they fail to follow up with a customer or complete an urgent task, you are going to be angry. In a large organisation there are usually other managers to discuss the issues with, who may bring some perspective to the problem. When you are on your own, it is difficult to remain calm and see the problem objectively. But if you don’t acknowledge your emotions, they will get in the way of fair procedure; it will also be difficult to identify the real problem and to listen impartially to the employee’s explanation.

Seven questions
Here are seven critical questions that will bring perspective and objectivity to issues of misconduct and poor performance. The more time you spend on these questions the better you will understand the problem, know how to proceed and be able to persuade an  outside arbitrator of the fairness of your actions. Your investigation will include asking other employees, witnesses and the employee concerned. At this stage, however, you are simply collecting evidence. You are not making accusations or looking for explanations. That will come later.

The problem
The first question is what did the employee do or fail to do? Be explicit, be very clear and write it down. If you cannot articulate the problem clearly, you will not be able to prove guilt. And you may have to prove it to an outsider. Writing it down will also help distance you from the problem and take some of the emotion away. It will help clarify your thinking. For example:

The employee took a company vehicle home on Friday night 25 January; or

The employee ignored a customer complaint for more than three days from 26 January, when the complaint was received, to 29 January, when the manager received a call from the customer.

The evidence
The next question is how do you know? How do you know that the employee did or failed to do whatever it was? What proof do you have? Is there physical evidence, verbal testimony or is it just a guess?

The rule
What rule, policy or instruction did the employee disobey? This is a critical question. What was the rule? It might be written or implied, company specific or generally accepted, but what is it? Continuing the above examples let us assume, in the first, that employees are not allowed to take company vehicles home with them; and in the second, employees are required to respond to customer complaints within 24 hours. 

Prior knowledge
How would the employee have known about the rule? Is it in a policy manual, the contract of employment or minutes of a meeting? Was there a verbal discussion? Were there witnesses? If the employee says, ‘I didn’t know about the rule,’ will you be able to prove that he did? One must also ask whether the rule is fair and is universally applied. 

The following questions are more subjective and must, therefore, be answered very carefully.

Is it serious?
How serious is the problem? For example, did the company suffer any loss or potential loss? There does not have to be any physical loss to make the matter serious, but if there was no loss, why is it a problem? Put differently, would it matter if this employee or others continued doing the same thing? This is usually very obvious to managers, but it is seldom understood by employees, and you may have to explain it to an outside arbitrator. Be very clear in your own mind so that you are able to articulate it later. And, ‘Of course it’s a problem,’ is not an answer.

Your relationship
What has this done to your relationship with the employee? Will you be able to continue working with the employee? If the answer is no, you will have to be able to answer the question, why not? Dismissal is always a last resort. If the trust relationship has broken down, you will have to explain why and whether it is irreparable.

Other employees
Finally, what has happened to other employees who have done the same thing?  Fairness requires similar action for similar offences.

Your answers to these questions will help you decide what to do next — is this a disciplinary matter or poor performance (the law requires different procedures for each of these)? Will you hold a disciplinary enquiry, formal counselling or an informal discussion? It will be during those procedures that you will give the employee an opportunity to respond to the allegations (the audi alteram partem rule). But that is a discussion for another time.

If you have any specific questions or thoughts, please add a comment below or feel free to contact me.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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