Alas, the world has changed. We need to discuss an unhappy but extremely important subject—one which plagues many an Executive Suite—protecting yourself against needless litigation. Don’t toss me aside here. Besides hurting my feelings, you may miss some critical information that has come my way in my travels. I’m not going to use this space on OSHA, city inspectors, insurance regulations…stuff like that. I’m going to focus on employee discipline and dismissals, and avoiding calls from hungry barristers.
Time was when you could chew out an employee, and if you got any lip you just told this undesirable not to let the door hit ‘em in the behind on the way out. The Dodgers will be back in Brooklyn before you will see that day again. You must protect yourself—with paper.
Here is a simple four-step, progressive disciplinary system I have used with considerable success in many states.
You start with a verbal warning. Two key items here: 1) It is critical is that the supervisor informs the employee in question that he is being warned and further trespasses will bring a write-up. 2) The supervisor needs to document—in writing—the date, the offense, and the event.
Although this warning doesn’t officially count against the worker, and nothing in writing need be given him, you need something on file in case, during a later write-up, the offender claims “no one ever told me there was a problem.” (If possible, have a witness sign the record of the verbal warning.)
The next three steps involve write-ups.
First, second, and third disciplinary notices work well. Make clear that the second one can bring a suspension if deemed necessary, and the third can (though not necessarily) involve termination. Like a driving record, after a year or two passes between disciplinary notices, the employee starts fresh.
2. Who, What, and How
The offender’s immediate manager does the write-up(s). You can have that person’s supervisor sign off on it just to be certain everything is fair, but make sure the write-up originates with the supervisor. We want to be sure our managers are respected, and she who holds the pen also holds the hammer. Employees often respect only those who truly have authority. If your supervisor is not competent to do write-ups, either teach her or kick yourself in the duff for ever making her a supervisor.
3. Personal Notification
The offense must be specifically described. If it’s tardiness, list the dates. If it’s insubordination or defiance, cite the R-rated language. Once written, go over the write-up with the employee. Make absolutely certain you have a “sympathetic” witness present (a female in the case of a female employee/male supervisor, for example) whose signature verifies that this disciplinary event took place. Ask the employee to sign it, but if he refuses, you are protected by the witness’ signature.
Another thing. The offenses do not have to be identical to move through the system. A write-up involving excessive tardiness can follow a first write-up over a different transgression.
One thing more. You do not have to dismiss after three write-ups. Some of my client companies have an intermediate (between the first and the third) form called simply “Disciplinary Notice” for use in exceptional cases.
Example: You may have an otherwise excellent employee who is going through an emotionally-charged divorce. Such workers may not be themselves during that period. They may run the table on write-ups and be lost permanently. No one gains from such a dismissal. Think each case through carefully. Be consistent, and play no favorites.