You asked: “Our managers would prefer to leave discipline to their own discretion. Do we have to have a disciplinary policy spelled out in our employee handbook?”
Laura answers: We appreciate your managers’ desire (and need) for case-by-case discretion when implementing discipline. Rest assured, leaving room for a manager’s discretion does not automatically rule out a well-defined policy. Progressive discipline policies, also called “Corrective Action Plans”, are great tools to help managers identify and correct deficiencies in behavior or performance. Any such policy should include a clear statement reserving management’s right to exercise discretion when applying any disciplinary action set forth in the policy.
That being said, we must add an important caveat. No matter how brilliant your policy, it will serve no good purpose if it isn’t applied consistently by well-trained supervisors/managers. If your disciplinary issues are not handled fairly and consistently across the organization, you may find the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at your door. Leaving each manager to his or her own devices will invariably lead to inconsistent disciplinary actions, which open you up to claims of discrimination. Additionally, the lack of a defined disciplinary process and good documentation could be detrimental when contesting an Unemployment Compensation case in which the termination was for cause.
Many employers use a three or four-step progressive discipline policy that may include a verbal warning, a written warning, a one or two-day suspension, and termination. These actions may be applied in order or a manager may decide to bi-pass one or more steps, depending on the severity of the offense. Whatever steps are applied, each step should be documented and become part of the employee’s personnel file.
Here are some more tips to keep in mind when discussing disciplinary issues with employees:
- State the problem clearly followed by a clear explanation of the desired behavior.
- Keep your side of the discussion short, to the point and be very specific. Do not use generalities to describe the undesirable performance. Talk about the problem, not the person.
- Stick to recent events. Always respond quickly to undesired behavior or performance. Don’t let issues get stale.
- Offer a variety of solutions (encourage the employee to participate in this process).
- Agree on the “next step” for this employee and set a date for a follow up meeting to review his/her progress, if appropriate.
- Document your discussion! Always!! If it was a verbal, a simple notation in their file is enough. If it was a written warning or a more formal Performance Improvement Plan, get the employees signature on the documentation.
The best ways to insure consistent discipline practices is with a clearly defined policy and well-trained supervisors. If you need help crafting a disciplinary policy for your company, give us a call. We’d be happy to help.
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