Writing a Disciplinary Memo That Has Teeth
January 2002 (HR One) He's at it again. You walk by Ethan's desk and spot him in plain view engrossed in the box scores on that sports Web site. And this, after you've warned him against frivolous surfing on company time.
Seething, you sit down to write a written warning to Ethan about his bad behavior, planning to meet with him and talk about it again-this time more forcefully. You describe what you saw, then wonder whether it sounds too terse, too whiney, too gruff. The following article gives guidance on how to take that difficult first step in documenting discipline -- and doing it most effectively.
Forging Your Armor
First and foremost, keep in mind the reason you're documenting subpar performance or behavior. All discipline documents should be part of a genuine attempt to improve an employee's performance or behavior.
Documenting discipline also serves as armor in case you eventually have to fire an employee for poor performance or repeated violations of conduct rules. If the worker later decides you discriminated, were abusive or otherwise unfair in any way, you will have the objective backing of the paper trail you created. The trail may deter a lawyer from pursuing a legal claim, and it may sway an investigating agency, a judge or a jury in your favor.
Documentation will not make you invulnerable, but it goes a long way toward establishing that you took the
Putting on a Trench Coat
Your first step in documenting discipline is often to write a warning about the bad behavior. Before you write a warning, investigate the situation to make sure you have valid reasons for doing it. Often, this is no problem. You told Ethan not to surf the net during work hours, for example, and then you found him staring intently at a picture of Pedro Martinez bearing down on a batter.
At other times, the rights and wrongs may not be as clear. You'll need to put on your trench coat and dark glasses and do some investigating. Say, for example, that two employees get into a fight on company property and each one swears that the other one started it. To get the whole story, you'll have to talk to the perps, to witnesses and to their supervisors.
Your goal is simple. You need to uncover evidence that supports or refutes the idea that an employee violated a behavior rule or failed to meet a performance standard.
Outline Your Position
Evidence in hand or mind, begin writing. A good warning will include five specific kinds of information.
Describe the situation. Stick to the facts and show exactly how a person failed to meet a standard or has broken a rule. Make no mention of attitude or personality-points that are too easily twisted into charges of discrimination. And obvious as it seems, omit any mention of age, gender, religion, disability, nationality or other personal characteristics; including them could land you on the defending end of a discrimination claim.
An example of a safe and sound factual recitation: "For the second time in two weeks, you were not wearing a hairnet in the vat room. Hairnets are required by both state and federal health regulations."
Explain the effect on the business. Never omit this step. It helps fix the problem and its solution in the employee's mind. For example: "If the food we process gets contaminated, a health inspector can fine us $1,000 on the spot for any employee found not wearing a hairnet."
State clearly the needed improvement. It is essential to give the errant employee clear instructions about what must change. "We will expect you to wear a hairnet at all times when working in the vat room."
Explain the consequences. Allow no wiggle room; the employee must understand that the future with the company is in his or her own hands. "If you are found in the vat room without a hairnet again, you will be immediately suspended without pay for a day."
Set out an action plan. Making a good faith effort to help employees improve is the right thing to do-and, as proof that you are acting reasonably to correct the problem, courts like to see the effort. Action plans-which usually involve coaching or additional training in some form-are especially useful in helping employees meet the standards of the job. But they can also be useful in solving behavior problems: "You indicated you had trouble remembering all the different health regulations. As we agreed, you can spend half an hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday next week reviewing the 'OSHA Vat Room Health Regulations' training video."
2002 HR One. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Business owner and HR manager Jeff Olson has written nine books on various business topics.