Managing repeat offenders in the workplace

I am often asked to help deal with a troublesome employee where the ‘trouble’ has been going on for some time. But there is no record of any previous counselling or disciplinary action. Can anything be done?

In a small organisation, or where happy relationships between staff and managers are the norm, minor slipups are often ignored or informal warnings are given:

‘Hey! You know you aren’t allowed to do that.’

‘You didn’t get the customer to sign the order. That could cause huge trouble. Don’t do it again.’

After all, everyone’s allowed an off day, surely? But eventually it all adds up until you have absolutely had enough.

The latest issue may not be serious on its own but, put together with everything else, it seems the employee is either disinterested or incompetent. So you call your consultant, and that’s when you have to confess to the absence of written records. The problem, of course, is that employees can simply deny any previous events.

All is not lost but, however frustrated you may be, don’t overreact. Decide how serious this issue is on its own without reference to past behaviour or performance. Is this incident, on its own, enough to charge the employee with misconduct? (Because of your emotional investment, it is helpful to discuss the situation with another manager.)

If it is not serious enough for a formal hearing, set up a meeting with the employee. Explain what you want to discuss (the latest incident only).

At the meeting:

  • describe what you have been told or have observed, and ask for the employee’s response.
  • listen to the employee’s explanations and weigh up the probabilities.
  • if you are not happy with the employee’s response, explain why.
  • explain why the behaviour is unacceptable.

Now is the time to go over previous incidents and discussions; for example, ‘Do you remember that we had a discussion on 21 January 2014 about your negative comments to other employees?’
‘Do you remember what we agreed?’
Go over it in detail: ‘I asked you to …, and you said you would …. Is that correct?’

Make sure you get the employee’s agreement to each of your questions about each of the prior incidents. If they can’t (or won’t) remember, move on — unless you have a witness to that event who can come in and confirm it in front of the employee.

Now you have the employee’s agreement on past events and discussions. These become part of the (written) record of the current conversation. It’s not bulletproof, but it is better than the empty file you had before.

Ask the employee, ‘Given all of these discussions, what do you think I should do next?’

No you are not going to fire them. But you are going to make it clear that the situation is serious:

  • Explain why it is serious — what the impact is on the business, other employees, customers etc.
  • Ask what the employee is going to do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Tell the employee that further incidents will lead to more formal disciplinary processes, which could lead to dismissal.
  • Set up a further meeting to discuss progress.

Write minutes of the meeting immediately, and get the employee to sign receipt of them.

In future, at least send an email to an employee after any such interaction (however minor) confirming the discussion and what was agreed. Then, next time you call your consultant, you won’t be embarrassed by an empty file.

For more on counselling see ‘Counselling for success‘ and ‘The process of counselling‘.
For help or for various training options for your managers in the process of counselling and discipline, send an email to ian@simply

[Image courtesy of stockimages/]

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 and HR & people-management consulting.

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