Lending a helping hand

Alternatives to progressive discipline
By Margot Uson and Amalia Agurcia
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/18/2013

How do employers help a struggling employee? Many HR professionals are reluctant to begin a progressive discipline process. That’s because it’s rare for an employee to improve enough for the outcome to be successful.

By the time progressive discipline finally begins, many managers have secretly made up their minds the employee will not succeed and must leave the company. So, does it really offer the best solution?

Employees struggle for many reasons. The problems can be caused by poor performance, a lack of fit with the employer, an employee’s personal life or legitimate disciplinary issues such as theft, fraud or a host of other prohibited behaviours. HR professionals know employers cannot, and should not, dismiss an employee without a valid reason and adequate warnings. So, what are the alternatives?

Progressive discipline has its place — but mainly as a last resort. It works well for disciplinary issues of a criminal nature, where serious breaches or prohibited behaviours have occurred. It is wonderful for creating a paper trail when litigation ensues.

But it is also lengthy, time-consuming and frustrating for all concerned and we need to be more creative in finding a solution and recuperating the employee.

Step one is to pinpoint the problem. If it is performance, examine the root cause. Is it from a lack of understanding of job requirements, conflicting priorities from too many sources, a lack of interest in the job, gaps in the employee’s skill set and competencies? Or are the issues related to the organization itself, such as unclear policies, poor-quality supervision or conflicting messages?

Often, employers lack the skills or support systems needed to help these workers, so they are labelled incompetent and discipline ensues.

If the problem relates to fit, the problem is harder to solve. Employers are not prepared to change to satisfy one employee and that employee needs to decide whether to stay or leave.

Either way, the problem must be addressed directly, quickly and clearly. Having that difficult conversation with an employee about what he is doing wrong, and the consequences if he does not change, is an important step — clarity and understanding can often result in immediate behaviour improvement.

Struggling employees are less productive and can poison a workplace atmosphere. An employer needs to quickly identify the root causes of the poor performance and take decisive action to address and correct the problem.

Progressive discipline typically occurs in the following stages, each documented and held in the employee’s HR file: a verbal warning, written warning, suspension, demotion or a third warning letter, and dismissal. If an employee files a complaint for wrongful dismissal, the way the process was applied and the documentation generated become the basis for the employer’s defence.

The biggest problem with progressive discipline is it is a horribly slow process. It eats up huge amounts of management time. Even well-run progressive discipline processes can result in litigation.

And the intended end result is usually dismissal rather than recuperation of the employee as a contributing member of the organization. Frequently, the negative fallout from progressive discipline is so significant that the employee spreads demotivation to other employees who do not understand what is happening.

Consider other options

Examine the alternatives to progressive discipline and get back to the basics:

• Put the right employee in the right job to improve her chances for success, both in terms of performance and fit.

• Strengthen the hiring process — train recruiters and managers to conduct effective interviews, use appropriate selection tools and testing, and check references carefully.

• Make onboarding mandatory and thorough — show new employees how to do their jobs correctly and provide clear and updated job descriptions.

• Train new employees thoroughly — they will make fewer mistakes on the job.

• Have clear, accessible policies and make sure employees know what the company expects from them.

• Make the probation period count and evaluate performance regularly and frequently — consider letting the new employee go if the fit isn’t right (and maybe suggest this alternative before the probationary period is up if it has become obvious the fit isn’t right).

• Train supervisors and managers to lead and manage — this is where the problems can be identified and resolved before discipline is needed.

• Help employees understand how their contributions benefit the organization — giving them focus and a view of how they impact the organization is essential to keep them engaged.

• Make sure employees are clear on their goals and how to achieve them — pushing them forward task by task will not make them as productive as giving them the whole picture and allowing them to reach for the objective on their own, with management’s support.

• Consider bringing in outside help such as an employee assistance program (EAP).

• Consider giving the employee time off to solve the problem — that can take some of the pressure off if she realizes her job is not in jeopardy.

• Consider a temporary reassignment to allow for different work hours or schedules or work from home for periods of time or on certain days.

• Clearly, and frequently, communicate company policies and prohibited behaviours to avoid misunderstandings or to remind people of what behaviours the company will or will not permit.

• Consider having the employee do community service instead of serving a suspension.

• Withhold disciplinary action if the employee agrees not to repeat the infraction — if it happens again, the penalty takes effect.

The bottom line is the discipline needs to fit the crime. Progressive discipline has its place in managing performance but it need not be the first course of action. There are many other ways a company can address performance and behaviour issues — progressive discipline should be a last resort.

Margot Uson is president and Amalia Agurcia is a consultant at AlternaSolutions in Kirkland, Que., a consulting firm providing services in HR strategy, process and policy development; compensation; performance and talent management; and learning and development. For more information, call (514) 910-7594 or visit www.alternasolutions.com.

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