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Thinking about a disciplinary?

If telling people off at work was easy, then anyone could do it. In reality, managers find it hard sometimes. You work closely with people and nobody enjoys sitting with someone who’s feeling angry or sad because you’ve just told them off or criticised them.

But there are times when you have to decide if a pattern of behaviour, or even an isolated incident, requires more than a ticking off or a friendly request not to do it again. Maybe because the person involved doesn’t seem to be getting the message or maybe because the problem’s just too serious this time. Sometimes a formal meeting, with a written warning, is the best way to get the message across and stop whatever the problem is being repeated.

One common trap is to tell people off repeatedly (or politely ask them not to do it again in a friendly way) and then want to go in, all guns blazing, with disciplinary action when your patience runs out – even if the latest issue is pretty minor. It’s usually triggered by built-up frustration that the time and trouble you’ve spent giving advice and warnings doesn’t seem to have worked.

Here’s a quick way of knowing if you’re being reasonable: compare how you would react if a different person had caused the problem. Would you think it was such a serious issue that you would be planning disciplinary action? Use the same tactic to check if you’re being too nice, if that’s a concern for you.

Be honest with yourself before you make any decisions and use these questions:

  • Are you being too nice or too nasty?
  • Are you reacting differently because of the person involved? Use a comparison: what would you do if it involved another employee.
  • Have you made it clear before that the problem, whatever it is, cannot be repeated?
  • Are you jumping to conclusions before you’ve actually asked the employee involved what their side of the story is?
  • What’s stopping you – are you worried about an emotional reaction: tears or anger?

If you answered yes to the last question, then sorry but that’s no reason to go ahead. If you’re managing people, your job means you can’t always be loved.

Another common pitfall is to be too informal and then retrospectively call something a disciplinary. For example, if you tell someone off and then describe it as a disciplinary after the event, then it won’t feel fair and it will probably backfire. For a start, it’s not legally compliant.

The best approach is two steps:

  1. Investigate – ask questions and get the employee’s version of events before you make any decisions. Something might surprise you and change your mind.
  2. Then make a decision – advice (“don’t do it again” or perhaps some training) or a disciplinary.

If you think the issue has crossed a line and deserves a disciplinary, then remember the process is letter, meeting and appeal.

  • Letter inviting the employee to a disciplinary meeting – with notice (so not the same day)
  • Disciplinary meeting
  • Right to appeal – another manager then considers the issue.

By Brian