Even the best leaders are going to have to discipline an employee at some point in their career. It is one of the more unfortunate realities of being in a leadership position. Whether it is several small errors that make up a bigger issue, or a huge mistake, a time will come in all leaders’ careers where they are going to need to reprimand an employee. Nobody enjoys engaging in a difficult and often negative conversation, but there is a way to make the experience bearable.

Do not avoid the conversation

For most people, the idea of having this type of conversation makes us uncomfortable. We are taught from a young age to not say anything rude or hurtful to others. But one of the worst things that you can do is to avoid this conversation. In fact, the longer you put this conversation off the worse it is going to be. This if for two reasons. The first is that the employee, often unaware of such issues, will continue to make the mistakes. The second is that the longer you put it off, the more frustrated you as a leader will become until you just unload all of your pent-up frustration on the employee. 

Mindset is everything

How you approach the conversation is critical. Which of the following conversations do you think will be more productive? A conversation where the mindset is “my employee messed up again and I need to tell them off and they might get upset or yell at me back” or a conversation where the mindset is “I want to help my employee improve and ensure they can do better”. In addition, if you look at things from an employee’s perspective, most would like to become better at their jobs and value feedback to help them grow and develop.

Be flexible with the rules

It is important to remember that things are not always black and white. So, if you have a policy that states, if an employee is late more than 3 times in a month they will be fired for example. This leaves you zero room for maneuver if you rigidly stick to the rules. What happens if your star performer has a genuine reason for being late? You have to fire them. Flexibility in approach and policy is key. There must a degree of consistency across the board, but there is a big difference between “late 3 times and instant termination” and “persistent lateness will result in disciplinary action”. One rule gives you flexibility, the other gives you none.

Document examples

Keeping records of the misconduct or issues is critical when it comes to disciplinary action. Although, you need to remember that doing this without also discussing the behaviour is pointless. If I were your boss and I kept a record of every time you were sick from January 1, and on December 30th I tell you, that you have been sick 48 times this year and 40 of those were on a Monday. That is not helpful. Its important to document, but you need to discuss what you have noticed and do it as early as possible. If someone has been sick on 6 of the first 9 Mondays of a year, have that discussion then and try to solve the problem early so that it does not become a bigger issue.

However, if this does not work then it is likely, disciplinary action is going to escalate from mere verbal warnings and discussions to more serious and formal action. Documentation helps here as well. We live in a world of ever-growing employment rights and protections, and if as a leader you discipline or terminate someone without proper reason, legal action could be likely. So, document conduct not just to note the behaviour, but also to ensure that there is in fact a problem and the action taken was justified.

Be consistent and fair

Finally, it is important to remain objective during this period. There is a long-standing legal saying that justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done. At its core this means that not only should someone be punished for wrongdoing, but it has to be interpreted by others as being fairly dealt with. If as a leader you are seen by the wider team as being overly harsh on one person, or the reverse overly lenient on another, you are going to cause the wider to team to disengage and question your integrity.