Dobbeck: Coach for skills, discipline for behaviors

Working with employees who just don’t "get it" can be frustrating. When this happens, the first reaction for many supervisors and managers is to issue written warning. In the long run, a written warning isn’t going to help the employee improve, instead, a written warning will probably intimidate someone who already is failing in their responsibilities.

Instead of rushing to judgment and "reacting," try a more pro-active approach. Use the opportunity to coach and develop the employee. By working out a step-by-step plan, you will begin to develop a more trusting relationship. Think about it. Would you rather work for a tyrant or a mentor?

Performance improvement plans (PIP) have several key components. They identify the "as is" and the "should be." They include a measurement to ensure the improvement has been made, a time frame for the end result and most importantly, action steps the employee can take to reach the objective. I use the acronym SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actions, Realistic and Timing). By including all five components, you are providing the employee with ideas he or she can implement to make the improvement. Most people really do want to do a good job and feel a sense of accomplishment when their work is improved.

For the best result, the employee must agree that change is needed and attainable. To help the employee see the problem from your perspective, make sure to have examples of poor performance to share. Once the employee understands, he or she will be more likely to embrace new methods and learn new things.

Then, don’t make the mistake of sitting back and waiting for the employee to fail. Instead, set up check-in times to meet with the employee and see how the improvement is progressing. Technology is a wonderful tool. Any electronic calendar will allow you to set up reminders and appointments. When meeting, check to see if there are obstacles in the way, if there are, help your employee remove them or learn to work around them. If your original plan won’t work for the employee, develop a new one. Taking this approach will communicate to your employee that you have his or her best interest in mind and you are confident the improvement can be achieved. It also may help you discover underlying problems in the department or a procedure that need to be addressed.

Make sure to praise your employee for small improvements along the way. Everyone likes to hear they are doing a good job and by recognizing the employee’s efforts, you are using positive reinforcement which will lead to more improvements.

On the other hand, if the problem is behavioral, coaching might not be the best approach. Most companies have policies such as attendance, dress code, drug/alcohol use, inappropriate behavior, confidentiality, etc. When an employee does not meet expectations, many times it is a choice the employee is making to not follow a policy. Behavior issues are better addressed through discipline. When disciplining, there are a few simple things to keep in mind.

When disciplining, please do it in private. No need for other employees to overhear your conversations. Many mistakenly believe you must get a signature from the employee. Although a signature is preferable, there are other ways to prove the conversation took place. If the employee refuses to sign a warning, call in another manager to witness the employee’s refusal. Ask the employee to sign that he/she is refusing to sign the warning. Send a recap e-mail to the employee outlining the conversation and with the warning attached or, send a certified letter to the employee’s home with the warning included.

Say what it is and do what you say. If issuing a verbal warning, you might want to make a note of it in your employee log but don’t put a note in the employee’s file. If you do, it really isn’t a verbal warning – it is a written warning. Also, be sure to include consequences in the event the behavior continues and then follow through on the consequences listed. In the end, if you terminate and the employee knew his or her behavior would lead to termination, you are in a stronger position in case of challenges to the termination.

Only indicate the warning is a final warning if the next step is termination. If you issue several "final warnings," the unemployment office will ask why this final warning was different than the first final warning and probably allow benefits.

By using coaching techniques and only disciplining at appropriate times, you will find you have the skills needed to develop great employees while weeding out the problems. Your employees will begin to trust you more as a manager and also respect the fact that you recognize the difference when it comes to performance vs. behavioral issues.

• If you need help in understanding or developing employment policies, contact Karla Dobbeck , president of Human Resource Techniques Inc. Call 847-289-4504, or email

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