Discipline or Coach?

We’ve all met the employee who has a bad attitude, is a low performer or even a slacker. The most difficult thing for a manager to do is to figure out exactly what path to take with an employee who is a repeat offender. The great thing about the Human Resources department is there are policies, procedures and even disciplinary guidelines to follow. It is usually difficult to make a decision for disciplinary action; especially if it means moving towards suspension or termination.

Two of the most common types of issues experienced when I was in the employee relations position was both performance and behavior. Behavior was usually in the form of cursing, mistreating coworkers, wearing something out of uniform, complaining, combative and insubordinate with managers/supervisors. Some of the common types of performance issues were not following procedures or doing something which put the patient at risk. The greatest thing about discretion is deciding the level of discipline based on the infraction.

I personally like to recommend all managers and supervisors take the approach of coaching employees on the initial infraction or issue. Some managers have tried to press me to fire someone because Louisiana is an Employee-At-Will state. I would clearly communicate the information to them about the law; stating the State is an employment-at-will state and we can fire with or without reason as well as with or without notice as long as both reasons do not violate any federal or state laws. I would then tell them how the company empowers the HR department to make the judgment call on how we handle these situations, and I would tell them we would need to follow our formal disciplinary process since the infraction was the first offense. 

Mind you, the level of the offense would generally put me in a different position. The more serious a situation, the more likely we could potentially move to termination or formal disciplinary action without prior warnings. For example, if an employee went into a family members patient file just to understand their family members diagnosis would constitute a violation of HIPAA if it did not have anything to do with Treatment, Payment or Operations. A situation like this would warrant an investigation and I would recommend suspension pending an investigation of the violation (of course the employee would not be paid if they were found guilty; but paid if they were not guilty). If the employee was found to have violated HIPAA, we would move forward with terminating the employee. 

Now regressing to normal performance or behavioral issues, I would usually ask the manager/supervisor to bring the employee aside in a private area and talk with the employee about their behavior and or performance issue. Some managers who were uncomfortable with this process; I would offer my services to them to support and speak to the employee/employees. I would always start off by introducing myself and how I came into the meeting. I would tell the employee their performance and or behavior is concerning and I wanted to have a conversation with them about the situation as this was more-so a coaching/verbal warning session. I would clearly ask the employee what they can do to improve their behavior/performance. If the employee would say, “I don’t know,” I would tell them to take a day to think about it and write down some goals/expectations of what they intent to do. I would tell the employee they would have to be involved in the process as well in order to improve. 

After the employee engaged with us to find solutions on how to improve their performance/behavior, I would inform the employee that failure to meet those expectations would lead to further action which would include disciplinary action up to including discharge. Employees would always have a clear expectation of what would happen with further noncompliance, generally by signing or reading the disciplinary action form. If the employee refuses to sign the form, I would inform them their signing does not admit guilt, but is merely an acknowledgement of the meeting taking place. The majority of the time, employees would sign the form and make the necessary adjustments. 

I like to use the coaching approach which engages the employee to do better with their performance and or behavior. Somethings happen quickly, but definitely not behavior. Some behavior issues end up getting worse and lead to the employee being terminated in the end because their attitude is becoming toxic to the culture in the office. Performance is fairly common as well because mistakes often happen when humans touch anything; we’re definitely not immune to mistakes. It is painful to write up and or terminate employees because their performance is not where it should be; especially if they’re willing to work harder towards the solution. 

As a professional, I sleep better at night knowing our formal disciplinary process protects us from legal recourse since we’re diligent to work with employees as much as we possibly can. A formal coaching and disciplinary process shows good faith and fair dealings with all employees. It is unbiased and is fair according to policies and procedures. It is important to have all managers and supervisors document as clearly as possible on any formal coaching/disciplinary forms. These forms can become evidence in legal proceedings if legal action is ever taken in the future. If arbitration occurs prior to the formal legal system, these documents can most certainly put any litigation out of reach; especially if it is clearly documentated how performance and or behavior was the result of the eventual termination. 

Please always consult your HR department before starting any formal disciplinary process if you’re not sure. Sending an employee home on suspension without a gameplan can be disasterous, esepcially if it was not serious enough or warranted. 

Does your organization have a clear expectation of disciplinary procedures? If not, it would be a good idea to work on getting one together so the company can better document its performance/behavior issues effectively while protecting the employer from litigation. Unfortunately, nothing is sue-proof. This is why it is very important to keep emotions out of the equation when disciplining and or terminating employees as well as showing each one dignity and fair treatment. Never move forward if you’re not comfortable or if you feel  uneasy about the determination. HR should always be consulted before any decision is made so you can be coached and or trained to become an independent thinker. Eventually, HR won’t need to be contacted unless you go to a certain extent in the disciplinary process (generally suspension and or termination). 

Clear documentation, fair dealings, no emotion and clear documented expectations will always prove key in the end. If you’re in a sticky situation, it may be good to contact both your HR and Legal teams for guidance. 


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