The prospect of cor­rec­tive action or ter­mi­na­tion makes a lot of man­agers ner­vous. That’s under­stand­able. For employ­ees, being dis­ci­plined or los­ing their job can be any­thing from mod­er­ate­ly embar­rass­ing to finan­cial­ly dev­as­tat­ing, but it’s rarely a hap­py occa­sion. For the employ­ers, these actions always come with some risk, and there are plen­ty of legal dan­ger zones an employ­er can end up in if cor­rec­tive action isn’t done properly.

Here are some tips from our HR Advi­sors to help you avoid these pit­falls and make cor­rec­tive action pro­duc­tive for everyone:

Every­one in the orga­ni­za­tion, but espe­cial­ly those respon­si­ble for dis­ci­plin­ing or ter­mi­nat­ing employ­ees, should under­stand exact­ly what the organization’s poli­cies are. When poli­cies aren’t clear or peo­ple don’t under­stand them, their enforce­ment can become incon­sis­tent and sub­ject to bias. In these cir­cum­stances, dis­ci­pline and ter­mi­na­tion will appear unfair. Worse, they may open the orga­ni­za­tion up to cost­ly dis­crim­i­na­tion claims.

Man­agers should fol­low con­sis­tent dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tices. Man­age­ment meet­ings are a good time for the lead­er­ship team to make sure they’re using the same prac­tices for dis­ci­pline and ter­mi­na­tion. Incon­sis­ten­cies in the orga­ni­za­tion, as not­ed above, can lead to alle­ga­tions of discrimination.

Inves­ti­gate alle­ga­tions before you act on them. Some­times, in a rush to cor­rect wrong­do­ing or poor per­for­mance, a man­ag­er will dis­ci­pline an employ­ee after hear­ing only one side of the sto­ry. For exam­ple, a restau­rant cus­tomer com­plains about rude ser­vice, and the serv­er is imme­di­ate­ly ter­mi­nat­ed and giv­en no chance to explain what hap­pened from their point of view. Such adverse actions tell employ­ees they can be penal­ized even if they do noth­ing wrong, caus­ing them to feel resent­ment, fear, and dis­trust. And the man­ag­er can find them­selves in an awk­ward ter­mi­na­tion meet­ing if the ter­mi­nat­ed employ­ee can prove then and there that they didn’t do what they were accused of doing.

Writ­ten warn­ings are best draft­ed by the man­ag­er and reviewed by HR. An employee’s man­ag­er often has first­hand knowl­edge of an infrac­tion or unac­cept­able per­for­mance, so they’re in the best posi­tion to draft the writ­ten warn­ing. HR can col­lab­o­rate with the man­ag­er by review­ing the warn­ing, ensur­ing that it is fac­tu­al, unemo­tion­al, thor­ough, clear, tied to a com­pa­ny pol­i­cy, and con­sis­tent with how oth­ers have been giv­en writ­ten warn­ings previously.

Cor­rec­tive action is best done by the employee’s direct man­ag­er. When cor­rec­tive action is deliv­ered by the man­ag­er, it tells the employ­ee that the man­ag­er is invest­ed in the employee’s suc­cess and is will­ing to help the employ­ee improve. Leav­ing cor­rec­tive action to HR tells employ­ees that they’re “some­one else’s prob­lem” and that their man­ag­er may not be ful­ly vest­ed in the company’s poli­cies and prac­tices. It also cre­ates an unnec­es­sar­i­ly adver­sar­i­al rela­tion­ship between employ­ees and HR, which can under­mine HR’s abil­i­ty to make pos­i­tive, com­pa­ny-wide changes.

Dur­ing a dis­ci­pli­nary meet­ing, a wit­ness can help doc­u­ment what was said and done as well as pro­vide logis­ti­cal details. Not every dis­ci­pli­nary meet­ing needs a wit­ness, though, espe­cial­ly if the issue is a minor one, or it’s a first con­ver­sa­tion about per­for­mance issues. In these cas­es, whether to have a wit­ness present can be left to each manager’s dis­cre­tion. A wit­ness is more use­ful for a meet­ing that is like­ly to esca­late, either due to the nature of the issue or dis­ci­pline, or the tem­per of the employee.

Fair­ness and cour­tesy can go a long way, even when ter­mi­na­tion is nec­es­sary. No ter­mi­na­tion meet­ing will be pleas­ant, but they’re often more unpleas­ant than they need to be. Good prac­tices here include being hon­est and clear about the rea­son for ter­mi­na­tion, not rely­ing on being an “at will” employ­er to avoid telling the employ­ee why they’re being let go (they’ll gen­er­al­ly assume the worst), and hold­ing the meet­ing pri­vate­ly and at the end of the day so that the employ­ee can clean out their desk and exit the work­place with­out an audi­ence. What­ev­er a man­ag­er can do to help the employ­ee leave with their dig­ni­ty intact will be help­ful in pre­vent­ing future issues with the now-for­mer employee.

Dis­ci­pline and ter­mi­na­tion can be in the employee’s best interest—allowing bad behav­ior and poor per­for­mance to go on unad­dressed does them no favors. If an employ­ee isn’t doing a good job and is unable or unwill­ing to improve, they’re not help­ing the employ­er, their team­mates, or them­selves by stay­ing in the orga­ni­za­tion. Chances are good that they’d be more suc­cess­ful and hap­pi­er doing some­thing else for some­one else. And that’s okay!

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