Managers faced with the need to discipline problem employees must be mindful of the legal implications of their actions. But the focus on legal considerations often goes too far, becoming the driving force behind how we handle employee problems. We make decisions because they seem the least likely to result in litigation and not necessarily because they are most likely to help the employee improve.
No manager can afford to disregard the legal implications of official actions or the need for documentation, but it is time for management to step back and rethink the objectives of employee discipline. Simply stated, the reason for discipline is to transform unacceptable behavior into acceptable practices that benefit a company, its employees, and ultimately the customer.
The goal of counseling is to make the employee more productive and less of a risk by finding the cause of the employee's poor performance or problem behavior. On some level, this process also entails making the employee feel better about the job, the company, and him or herself
Unfortunately, the counseling methods used by managers tend to be pro forma. When discipline is warranted, the supervisor usually has a preconceived notion of the cause. He or she writes some well-chosen words onto a counseling form and brings the employee in to discuss (test) the manager's predetermined hypothesis.
During this process, managers are often more concerned that the counseling forms meet legal requirements and that they personally escape any liability than they are with actually changing the employee's behavior.
Instead, managers should engage the employee in an open discussion of the behavior to discover the cause and to redirect the employee's energies to a productive purpose. This process requires listening--a lost art. It also requires a commitment to the employee and to the employee's success over the long term.
Despite complaints about a tight labor market and the high cost of turnover, managers have a tendency to opt for the quick and easy solution with a problem employee: termination. And if no lawsuits are filed, we breathe a sigh of relief and count it a victory Instead, managers should view a termination as a personal failure.
Rather than being so quick to rid the company and ourselves of this "headache," we should seek to save this valuable asset--the employee. And rather than looking at documentation as a legal necessity, we should see it as a management tool.
The counseling process should be viewed not as a gantlet the employee must run but as a project undertaken by the two parties--the manager and the employee. The documentation is used to set the contract terms (in which both parties agree on what needs to be done) and to assess the progress until the project is completed. In this sense, documentation serves both parties. …