Managing discipline: a foreign country?

Is the disciplinary process a foreign country for you? Owners and manager of small to medium-size organisations often keep away from discipline until an impossible employee needs to be fired. By then it’s far too late.

Too much damage has been done. The employee has perhaps damaged relationships with clients, the manager has been driven to distraction and other employees have suffered. Performance all round has taken a knock.

If the problem included some measure of disrespect or disloyalty, it is likely to have had a significant impact in a small organisation. Other employees will be acutely aware of what is going on and what you as the manager have allowed. They know how it has affected their own work, their sense of security and their well-being. Yet still, we are slow to act. We hope, somehow, that the problem will go away. Sometimes we crawl into our shells and continue as if nothing is the matter, hoping that the employee will somehow improve. Other times we retaliate with aggression, hoping that if we are angry enough the employee will be intimidated enough to reform or to leave—resignation of a troublesome employee being the remedy for all ills.  But all we are doing is adding to the discomfort of the other employees.

Unfortunately the damage that both of these approaches cause is often irreparable. Doing nothing fuels the wayward employee’s fires, depresses everyone else and undermines the respect they may have had for you.  Retaliation, on the other hand, may land you in the CCMA on the wrong side of a constructive dismissal charge.

Effective handling of misconduct starts at the very beginning: the first time an employee fails to follow instructions, is rude to a customer or colleague, is late for work, or in some way or another crosses a boundary or breaks a rule.

Make the rules
The first step is to make the rules. A small organisation usually functions on trust and good sense, but when that begins to fall apart, you need to create some rules. If taking or making private phone calls or employees checking into Facebook is becoming a problem, talk to the employees. Explain what the problem is and why it has become a problem. Although you may not want to police them, there are some necessary boundaries if the company is to thrive and employees are to survive in the confined space. Don’t make it personal. No one is to blame yet, even if one person is creating most of the problems. You have allowed it up to now and, as American author and ethicist Michael Josephson said, “What you allow you encourage.” Pointing fingers at this stage will simply make your employee defensive rather than cooperative. Try to reach agreement, because greater cooperation tends to improve compliance. But you do not need agreement if you are simply changing working arrangements as opposed to working conditions.

Apply the rules
Applying the rules is the hard part. Far too many managers, in large corporates and small one-room organisations, avoid the difficult conversations that are crucial for improving performance and managing behaviour. Difficult conversations are not high on one’s “love to do” list. But, once again, “What you allow you encourage.” Failure to act when action is required will, among all the other damage, negatively affect the attitude and performance of your better employees. And those who can will leave.

You don’t need a passport to enter the people-management realm. You just need the courage and determination that led you to start your business in the first place. It’s your business—own it.

[This article appeared in HR Future magazine, April 2013]

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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