When you see the term “problem employee,” what comes to mind? Perhaps someone in your practice makes negative comments about virtually every situation, whereas someone else may disappear whenever an unpleasant task needs to be done. Or, maybe someone believes he or she has the correct answer for every situation, and doesn’t follow procedure when it conflicts with what he or she thinks is appropriate. While every practice will have a different version of a problem employee, nearly every practice has at least one such person to deal with.

When an employee acts in an inappropriate way, how should it be handled? When is disciplinary action warranted? Here is a six-step process.

Step 1: Enter the situation, as a manager, with the appropriate attitude. Make sure you are not making a decision based on angry feelings and don’t rush to judgment. The decision as to whether to discipline an employee must be made carefully.

Step 2: Identify the cause of the problem. In general, there are two types: performance problems and behavioral problems; it’s important to determine which type you are dealing with before proceeding.

Performance problems occur when an employee is not meeting the minimum expectations for his or her job duties. If you establish metrics and measure them, then it can be fairly easy to determine whether an employee is meeting standards. If the answer is “no,” try to figure out why. Does the employee need more training? Is he or she lacking in a certain skill? If so, then the issue can potentially be addressed by providing additional help to increase the employee’s productivity.

Behavioral issues, though, typically occur when an employee deliberately decides to not comply with established rules, procedures and/or policies. This can encompass negligence, insubordination and other misconduct. Actions taken are typically within the employee’s control and are the type often culminating in disciplinary actions.

Step 3: Gather information. For a performance-based issue, statistical information is often helpful. If, for example, an employee is tasked with sending out ten postcards weekly to clients, but he or she only is sending out an average of eight, that hard data is important to share with the employee. Remember to look deeper at the situation, though. If Employee A is not meeting postcard requirements, the fact that Employee B has been away from work for the past six weeks for medical reasons may be highly relevant. How did Employee A perform before that timeframe?

If a problem is behavioral – perhaps an employee doing a substandard job of cleaning cages – gather together examples of behaviors you consider unacceptable and how often they are occurring.

Step 4: Next, it’s time to determine what disciplinary actions would be appropriate to take. Generally accepted disciplinary actions include:

  • informal discussion
  • verbal warning
  • written warning
  • final written warning
  • suspension without pay
  • demotion
  • decrease in pay or hours
  • “last chance” warning
  • termination

Before you move forward, it’s important to ensure that disciplinary actions you are about to take are consistent with:

  • procedures listed in your employee handbook
  • how you have handled similar situations in the past

If you list specific disciplinary steps in your handbook, it’s crucial that you follow them. Does, for example, your handbook state that specific steps will be taken in order or does it give you flexibility to tailor disciplinary measures to the situation? If your handbook does not appropriately address the situation you’re in, consider revising your handbook for future incidents.

Then consider what disciplinary incidents have occurred in the past and how you handled them. Which one is closest in nature to what you’re facing now? In that previous situation, did you skip steps? If so, why did you make that decision? Because of the seriousness of the infraction? How does that compare to what you’re dealing with today?

Important caution: As you navigate your current situation, be very careful that you do not take disciplinary actions that could be considered discriminatory. It is extremely important for your practice to be consistent with how you discipline employees; if there is a reason why you will not be able to handle comparable offenses in a consistent way, carefully document your reasons why. Also, be sure the offense and the discipline fit one another. If an employee becomes physically aggressive with someone else, for example, immediate termination may well be warranted. That is not necessarily true if the issue is lateness to work.

Step 5: Meeting with the employee is the next step and it’s important to do your best to have this discussion in a private area where you’re unlikely to be overheard and to keep the meeting between you and the employee. This meeting will likely be tense, no matter how justified you are in your actions. Be sure to remain calm throughout the meeting, sharing your message with your employee in a straightforward, unemotional way.

Key steps include:

  • Develop a clear statement describing the behavior or performance deficiency that led to the discipline; include specific examples
  • Restate the expectations and requirements about the area of deficiency
  • Develop a performance improvement plan that includes a list of tasks, activities, deliverables and outcomes that must occur within a set time
  • Schedule a date to follow-up
  • Review the consequences of future occurrences with this and/or related deficiencies
  • Review the highlights of your discussion
  • Document the discussion, have employee sign a form that summarizes the disciplinary action, and place a signed copy employee’s official personnel folder

Be sure to give your employee a chance to share his or her side of the story, as well. Although it is unlikely you will change your mind about actions being taken, you may learn relevant new information; at a minimum, this may reduce the employee’s resistance about the steps you’re taking.

You may be wondering whether it makes sense to impose a timeframe for corrective actions. The answer is that they can backfire. If, for example, you tell the employee you will closely monitor whether he or she leaves work early over the next 60 days, the employee can comply – and then revert to former behaviors, claiming that he or she met the standards set in the warning. Your goal is to have behaviors improve and then have that improvement sustained over the long haul.

With behavioral issues, the onus for improvement is entirely upon the employee. With performance issues, you must play an active role, perhaps by providing ongoing training and more frequent feedback.

 Step 6: Document all important interactions with your employee, such as the disciplinary action meeting, and place a copy of your detailed notes in the official personnel file of the employee. Refer to this document when it’s time for any future disciplinary actions, or when it’s time to provide performance reviews, pay raises, promotions and the like. If the employee ever claims you treated him or her unfairly, this documentation will make it easier to defend your actions.

Don’t wait until you need to address disciplinary issues to foolproof relevant procedures. Ensure that you have your processes in place before the next situation arises and you will be much better prepared to handle incidents requiring discipline more effectively.

Originally published for Today’s Veterinary Business




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