It is without a doubt one of the most difficult parts of managing staff, and one of the easiest to fall short on: the disciplinary process. No leader wants conflict on their team, and that includes between them and any one individual. But the reality is, at one point or another, disciplinary action for a workplace infraction will be required of you. Are you prepared to see it through?
Whether it involves a minor warning or a final termination, the disciplinary process needs to be handled with care and without fear. What follows are five guiding principles for maintaining your authority and a positive working environment in the wake of having to discipline an employee.
It’s important to note that these are “guiding principles” and the particular circumstances of your business, your employees and the situation may necessitate a different course of action or consulting with an outside advisor such as an employment attorney in your state.
1. Don’t make it personal.
Right off, know that this is going to be very difficult, particularly for small business owners. Your personal, financial stake in the day-to-day operations of your restaurant means that every loss is one to your own bottom line, as well. Despite that, keep your handling of the situation factual and reserve your emotion. Never yell. Be respectful, even in the face of something you feel is a disrespect to you or your business.
Contrary to popular perception, the goal of any disciplinary process is not to punish. It’s to correct behavior and give the staffer in question the opportunity to be a stronger employee. The employee then needs to make a choice as to whether they are open to improving or not. If you handle discipline correctly, then it should be true what they say: Employers don’t fire employees. Employees fire themselves.
Ensure that the individual is in a space to hear what you have to say when you schedule the discussion. If you drag them out of lunch or right after a breakup call from their boyfriend, the conversation is going to be moot. Give yourself the best chance for success by structuring the conversation in a way that leads to a breakthrough. Don’t surprise them with a formal discussion unless the infraction is so severe that it must be resolved immediately. Give them a chance to prepare their thoughts as you take time to prepare yours.
(Of course, if the infraction involves a threat or danger to co-workers or the individual themselves, removal from the premises immediately with the intention to address the problem shortly thereafter is absolutely recommended.)
2. Have a defined process.
What kind of discipline process do you have in place? If you don’t have something formally documented for your employees, now is the time to put that down. Having a plan to follow when unfavorable behavior takes places can help ease the discomfort in confrontation and disciplinary action.
Is your process progressive or single? It depends on the infraction. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), different types of misconduct should be addressed progressively, using some or all of the following steps:
- 1st offense: Documented verbal warning.
- 2nd offense: Documented written warning.
- 3rd offense: 3-day suspension.
- 4th offense: Termination of employment.
It’s important to determine severity of a problem and define that clearly in your employee handbook for your staff. Disregarding dress code or abusing lunch periods may warrant all four of the above steps. Violating safety rules is serious enough that it warrants, at a minimum, a documented written warning and potentially more serious steps such as suspension or termination. Violence or theft, on the other hand, should result in immediate termination. No matter how you define your process, once you have: stick to the plan.
The other upside of having (and keeping to) a defined process? It’s the opportunity for your lawyer to review it in light of federal and state employment statutes, as well as any union agreements your business may need to honor.
Ultimately, discipline (or in extreme cases, termination) should never be a surprise, either because the proper process wasn’t followed, or because expectations of employment standards weren’t clear from the get-go. Make sure that timing is also a clear aspect of your process. The amount of time between reviews, as well as the time at which one is officially out of “probation” and back at square one, are important to define. It will set expectations that everyone — including yourself as a manager — can live up to.
3. Document appropriately and consistently.
Be clear and specific about feedback and expectations. Record dates, times, and instances of every infraction and subsequent discussion in writing. Seeing everything visually compiled in one place not only puts everyone on the same page in discussion but can help serve as your road map to facilitating the conversation. And it’s not a negative. In a busy environment, documenting concerns in writing is a necessity so your concerns, as well as the employee’s, aren’t lost in the shuffle.
Writing everything out might also illuminate patterns that would otherwise be overlooked. For instance, if the discussion involves a third party accusation or concern, seeing the details delivered in an objective format can help you determine the differences between standard workplace conflict and harassment.
If you suspect any of your verbal discussion could be questioned down the road, include another manager-level employee in the conversation to serve as a witness. And be sure to have the disciplined employee sign and retain their own copy of any document you’ve discussed together for their own records. Doing so can avoid questions after the fact about who said what.
4. Be consistent.
As a manager, it’s important to maintain consistency in dealing with individuals over time — and in the way you deal with problems between one individual and another. This is the value of defined process: an expectation of consistency across all management (and over time) in how they execute disciplinary measure.
Knowing what to expect can help your employees maintain some sense of morale in an otherwise troubling situation, even if they are on the receiving end of a disciplinary measure. And the benefit of consistency is not just for the employee receiving discipline either. If those affected by the inappropriate behavior of a co-worker have faith that their concerns will be taken seriously by management, they will be happier and less likely to stray from your expectations.
We all get it. NO DAY is a good day to disrupt your staff when you run a restaurant. There is no down time. No slow periods. It’s easy to want to ignore infractions or problems when your staff is busy, but all that does is fracture the confidence of everyone you rely on to be productive. Consequences needs to be seen through, rain or shine, no matter how difficult it may make a particular day or week’s work.
The saying holds: “You should never make ongoing employment decisions based on your staffing needs.” If someone should be disciplined or terminated, do it. Not to do so could prove to be even more detrimental in the long term than the short term inconvenience of having to hire all over again.
5. Understand the impact.
The employee facing disciplinary action or termination is not the only one affected by this process. You can be sure that if something is happening behind closed doors (as every disciplinary process should), your other employees have some idea of what it’s about at an appropriate level that respects their colleague— even if they’re mistaken on the details. That’s the nature of working in close quarters and in as personal an environment as a restaurant.
In the aftermath of a termination in particular, do provide clarity to other employees while being careful not to expose any private information (for your terminated employee’s sake and your own). Don’t leave them hanging with an irrational fear that “they could be next.”
A general staff meeting in the wake of a termination to address division of responsibilities and the plan for staff replacement is a great idea, but don’t forget to remind those still with you why you value their dedication and exceptional performance. And offer anyone who has a concern the opportunity to speak with you one-on-one to quell doubts or raise issues of their own.
All of these thoughts presume that your small business doesn’t have the benefit of an in-house Human Resources department or officer. Suffice to say, if you do, use them! Never attempt a disciplinary process on your own without their involvement.
But if you don’t have those kinds of resources on the ground — and things feel a little too dicey for you to handle on your own — there are outside HR and legal services out there that your can purchase limited time from. Just like most people pay an expert to cut their hair — or make a four course dinner — it’s always a good idea to pay an expert to consult on employment matters if issues become severe enough. The long term legal benefits (once again) can outweigh the short term cost.
Before taking any disciplinary measures, it’s also good to brush up on labor law and your responsibilities to your employees. We break down what you need to know: