With a Little Help, Disciplining Employees Can Be Easier Than You Think!

May 26th, 2011

Jan Fye – Over the many years I have worked with managers, I find one of the challenges they fear most is disciplining employees.  Tasks need to get done and there are times that things just don’t work the way they should…and we have to step in.  With a little bit of planning up front, you may find it really doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it out to be.

I like to frame this discussion first in terms of parenthood which, for the most part, can be considered management if you really think about it.  It’s even easier for me to think about it when I remember all those Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house.  Remember when, as a child, you got too close to the stove and your Grandmother chased you away telling you if you got too close, you would burn yourself?  Well that’s exactly where we start when thinking about disciplining employees.

Advance Warning—make sure your employees know the rules and regulations, as well as the consequences, before the wrong-doing occurs!  You can’t expect an employee to read your mind.  And Grandma didn’t expect me to read hers.  As we started racing into the kitchen you heard “don’t come near the stove or you’ll get burned—and it will hurt like the dickens!”  That was pretty clear to me.  Now I won’t guarantee I always listened but I sure knew that hot stove was nothing to mess with as far as Grandma was concerned.

Immediacy—if you touch a stove, does it hurt later or does it hurt right now?  Well of course it hurts right now.  You are very acutely aware that the pain you just felt was a direct result of touching that stove.  Good.  That’s exactly what should happen.  If the consequence happens immediately after the infraction, then the chance of an employee understanding exactly what they did wrong improves—as opposed to “waiting until your father comes home.”  Did any child ever really understand the talking-to they received from Dad at 7pm that night and when they did something wrong at 10am that morning?  I doubt it.

Consistency—if I touched a hot stove on Saturday night, it burned.  And believe it or not, when I touched that same hot stove Sunday afternoon, it burned again.  And we can all guess what happened if I was silly enough to touch it Monday morning.  I got burned all three times.  Well, if an employee does something they are not supposed to do, they should be corrected each and every time they do it.  Was it tiring for Grandma to keep having to tell me not to touch the stove?  Yes.   But if I hadn’t been burned each and every time, then I may have started to play a little game with that stove. “Hmm, I think I’ll touch it and see what happens this time because the last time, I didn’t have any problems at all.”  Same is true with the supervisor.  The employee, even if it’s subconsciously, starts to play a bit of a game of Russian roulette to see if the same action brings about the same reaction—each and every time.  It certainly should but we all know that doesn’t always happen.

Impersonality—so we all know if I touched the stove, it burned.  But what about my cousin?  Did it burn him too?  And my brother?  You bet.  No matter who touched that hot stove, they were going to get burned.  So it is with discipline.  If your not-so-favorite employee does something wrong, it needs to be addressed.  And if your favorite employee does the same thing, they need to be disciplined as well.  It’s only fair.  It should not matter who the employee is—if they have done something wrong, it should be addressed!

Well, I have to admit, talking about this brought me back to Sunday dinners at Grandma’s and being in front of a classroom—both conjuring up great memories.  But let’s not forget the real point of the story.  Discipline needs to be delivered on a fair playing field and making sure you follow these four tips will go along way to ensuring that.


Jan Fye is the Regional Director for the North Central Indiana Small Business Development Center, an organization with the mission of having a positive and measurable impact on the formation, growth, and sustainability of small businesses in Indiana, and to develop a strong entrepreneurial community. Jan can be reached at jfye@isbdc.org.