How to Effectively Discipline an Employee

Close-up of a man's hand holding a white card that says 'discipline' in capital letters
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Sometimes, disciplining an employee is an avoidable but necessary part of running an HR department, and when done right, it can turn a slacker into a star employee. Indeed, by communicating effectively, showing the right amount of trust and confidence, and getting employees involved in solving problems, you’ll achieve the desired results in no time.

So, how do you go about doing that (without making matters worse in the meantime)?

Well, you’ve come to the right place!

Here we’ve listed the best steps to take when you need to discipline an employee and help them grow within the workplace.

1. Investigate

Before you begin any disciplinary action, it’s important to review any evidence against the employee and reach your own verdict. For example, if a supervisor is accusing an employee of not following protocols, you need to study their findings and ensure there’s good cause for disciplinary action.

You must ask yourself who is at fault and assess whether the employee has done the best they can in the situation that they’re in. Once you’ve gathered enough evidence, you should then discuss further action with the employee in question.

2. Review the Employee Policy

Employee policies are there for a reason, and once an employee has signed their contract, it means that they have understood what is expected of them within the workplace. If it has come to your attention that the employee isn’t following the rules outlined in the policy, take them aside and tell them exactly what they’ve done wrong. By doing so, you’ll be able to communicate what is expected of them in future situations.

3. Communicate Clearly at All Times

Clear communication is essential when disciplining an employee. Stumbling over your words and not getting to the point can confuse the employee, as well as make you seem unprofessional.

It’s best to approach situations logically rather than emotionally and to remain calm at all times (even if the employee raises their voice) and be assertive when needed. Your voice should be firm, and all points discussed should be logical and within reason, without making the employee feel remorse.

4. Use Correctional Methods

The best approach to use before jumping into disciplinary procedures are correctional methods. Instead of merely listing the issue and telling the employee the solution, you should work together to come up with solutions that are both logical and achievable.

For example, an employee may not be meeting their targets because they haven’t been trained properly. In this case, you can set out a training plan to correct the issue before it gets taken any further.

5. Give a Verbal Warning

The above correctional methods should be delivered in the form of a verbal warning. These types of warnings should only be carried out when an employee has gone against company rules. By doing so, you’re showing that you have faith in your staff member to make a few changes to better themselves.

Rather than progressive discipline, it’s essential to have a two-way conversation – you’ll need to get to the root of the problem and not merely highlight the issue during your discussion.

6. Finish on a Positive Note

During the disciplinary process, many managers forget to highlight the positives and end the meeting on a negative note, leaving a bitter taste in the employee’s mouth. Therefore, you should let your employee know that you’re aware of all the excellent work they have done, and avoid any scare tactics. Positive discipline reinforces good behaviour and motivates your employees to improve and better themselves.

7. Give the Employee Time to Speak

Although you’re the one holding the meeting, it’s vital to give your employee time to speak and share their side of the story. It’s possible that there are specific circumstances that you might not even be aware of or valid reasons your staff member is behaving the way they are.

Be open to what they have to say, even if you have already made your mind up on a specific matter. It’s important the employee doesn’t feel like they’re facing disciplinary action before they’ve even had the chance to defend themselves.

8. Do it in Private

There’s nothing worse than being publicly shamed in front of your colleagues.

As such, it’s essential that any discussions are carried out in private. This not only protects your staff member’s privacy, but it also shields their reputation.

Another point to remember is that you should carry out the conversation when it’s a good time for both of you. Don’t interrupt the employee while they are in the middle of a task; instead, ask to speak to them in private when they have a few minutes to spare.

9. Follow Up in Writing

It’s necessary to follow up with an email after every discussion and outline the facts of your conversations, ensuring that you accurately detail what was said and what the expectations are going forward. This also gives the employee a chance to reply if they do not entirely agree with your summary.

This email thread is necessary if you wish to establish a pattern of poor performance and can provide you with the proof you need if you would like to proceed with a written warning. It ensures there’s consistency and that you are abiding by the rules set out in the company’s employee handbook.

10. Give a Written Warning

If you still haven’t seen any improvement after your verbal reprimand, it’s time to take further action in the form of a written warning. As with the verbal warning, you should conduct an in-person meeting with the employee in question where you can discuss the specific issues and create possible outcomes.

This time, though, you’ll also follow up with an official warning letter. This letter will then need to be signed by the employee and placed in their HR folder.

11. Implement an Improvement Plan

The next stage in the disciplinary process after a written warning is investing in an improvement plan. This gives them a chance to reflect on what has happened and to follow a clear structure for them to improve.

The plan doesn’t need to follow any specific structure; it should be based on logical steps that will work for both the employee and yourself. For example, you should set targets and a timeline for these targets. At the end of each deadline, you should have a meeting with the employee to discuss their improvements.

12. Issue a Final Warning

If you haven’t seen an improvement over a set period (ideally, a month), then it’s time to issue a final warning. Similar to the first written warning, this document should outline the issues and the steps taken for improvement.

However, it’s necessary to highlight the consequences if there is no further improvement on the employee’s behalf. You will again need to outline a new improvement plan and set another timeline, specifying that if there has been no progress, you will need to terminate their contract of employment.

13. Consider Termination

After a two to three-month period of no improvement, you will likely have no choice but to fire the employee or move them to a better-suited position.

If you’re going down the termination route, it’s important to schedule a meeting and ensure that a manager, as well as an HR representative, is present. You must also give the employee the option to bring their own witness with them to the meeting. At the end of the meeting, you should deliver the termination letter and outline the next steps.

There are no set rules when it comes to terminating an employee’s contract. Some companies choose to let the staff member leave immediately and pay their notice, while others ask them to work their notice. It’s best to identify the ideal situation for the employee, as well as the company, making the process easier for everyone involved.

Employee discipline is a long and stressful process, but it’s one that must be followed correctly to avoid any legal issues that may arise further down the line and to also give the employee a fair chance of improving within their job.

Have you had any tricky disciplinary situations? If so, join the conversation below and let us know how you overcame them.