Effective Employee Discipline: Handling it properly and staying out of court

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By Dick Cipoletti

If 2010 proves typical, there will be over 100,000 lawsuits and claims filed against employers in the US and the average cost to defend a wrongful discharge suit will be above $150,000.

Dealing with employee disciplinary issues is not pleasant for any manager or business owner. It is, however, important. A common complaint of top performing employees is that underperforming employees are not dealt with promptly and firmly. Yet, to avoid lawsuits and discrimination claims, disciplinary issues need to be handled carefully and correctly.

Pennsylvania is an ‘employment at will’ state, which means an employee serves at the will and pleasure of the employer. However, there are exceptions to at will employment. So, how can an employer keep the flexibility of employment at will and not run afoul of employee rights?

First, make sure that your employee handbook, policies and procedures do not erode your employment at will status. The courts are increasingly ruling that handbooks and other official communications are implied agreements.

Second, work on preventing the need for discipline. Hire hard, slow and for fit with your organization, which will reduce both costly turnover and the need for employee discipline. Make expectations clear before hiring, during orientation and then give staff regular feedback. Most employees want to do a good job, so tell them what a good job is in terms of duties and behaviors.

Deal with employee disciplinary matters right away. Deal with the matter privately and confidentially. In addressing the matter with the employee, focus on the action, not the employee (attack the performance not the performer). And focus on specific, observable behaviors not general issues, like ‘team play’ or ‘attitude’. Allow the employee to explain his/her side (due process) and keep an open mind. Make sure you document such conversations and actions thoroughly and factually (no suppositions). Write as though it may see the light of day- it might! Personnel files and supervisory notes are discoverable. Remember that discipline in the workplace is about compliance, not punishment. Discipline when an employee does not meet productivity, quality and conduct standards.

If you must terminate, do it as humanely as possible. Taking the job is one thing; taking one’s dignity is another and often is what precipitates lawsuits and claims. Consider separation agreements. Done properly, it assures the employer will stay out of court and helps the terminated employee get on with their life.

Dick Cipoletti is President of RCC Associates, a Lehigh Valley-based full service human resources consulting and training firm. A published author and former HR columnist, Dick hosted the popular PBS TV series, “Job Quest” for 8 years.  He has trained nationally for CareerTrack, Dun & Bradstreet Seminars, Day-Timer, and PESI. He can be reached at dcipoletti@achievenextlevelcom. Dick Cipoletti is a Certified Facilitator for The Alternative Board and an SBL-Certified Executive Business Coach. To learn more about The Alternative Board, visit www.TheAlternativeBoard.com.

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