From the January 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

The dirty secret about managing is that most business owners hate to discipline employees who are falling down on the job. "For many entrepreneurs, disciplining employees is very difficult; they tend to put it off, hoping the problems resolve themselves. But things just get worse," says Bob Turknett, a licensed psychologist and president of Turknett Leadership Group, a leadership consulting group in Atlanta.

Another dirty secret is that most entrepreneurs have limited experience getting a positive response when and if they do discipline their employees. Traditionally, slumping workers were simply fired. Maybe the boss went through a scripted "disciplinary procedure" suggested by lawyers to avoid possible wrongful termination lawsuits, but a focus on actually changing employee behavior was rare.

Firing no longer works, however, because it's both costly to lose a worker and the talent pool is shrinking, says Turknett. Plainly put, firing a worker who's falling behind might seem like a good idea in the heat of the moment, but is there any reason to think there's a better replacement out there hankering for the job?

That puts a new onus on you: You've got to learn how to sit down with errant workers and set them on a more productive course. Will it be easy? Of course not. But, the experts insist, discipline is a skill that any smart manager can master, and, nowadays, smart managers know they must master it.


Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com

Laying Down The Law

How do you get started on the right track to disciplining? First identify the mistakes you may already be making:

  • Don't get emotional. "Most discipline is delivered in an emotional outburst. The manager is angry, and he yells and criticizes the employee. That almost never works. It's demeaning to the employee, and the positive message gets lost," says Michael Markovitz, CEO of Argosy Education Group Inc., a professional-education corporation in Chicago. "You feel mad because an employee isn't doing his or her job? Go to the gym or walk around the block--exercise is a great cure for anger. Your anger is understandable, but you still must not abuse your employees."
  • Don't delay discipline. Sound like a contradiction of the first point? It's not. First, calm yourself down to avoid an outburst, then tell the employee there's a problem. "A manager must respond as soon as possible after an incident of poor performance. Don't bury your head. Too many managers are gutless," says Ray Hilgert, a management and industrial relations professor at Washington University's Olin School of Business in St. Louis.

"When employees are told nothing, they assume everything is OK," Hilgert adds. Then, when discipline comes at them, they're shocked.

  • Don't use generalities. "Too much discipline is delivered in a blanket judgment: `You screwed up.' That doesn't help at all. The employee needs specific criticism," says Mary Hessler Key, a Tampa, Florida, business consultant and author of The Entrepreneurial Cat: 13 Ways to Transform Your Work Life (Berrett-Koehler Publishers).

In that same vein, Jean Hollands, CEO of the Growth & Leadership Center Inc., a Mountain View, California, management coaching firm, urges: "Don't give vague feedback. Saying `You're not a team player' isn't useful to an employee."

  • Don't do it on the fly, no matter how busy your schedule is. "Schedule a time to have a focused, one-on-one discussion in private," says Key. "It's worth your time investment because it's an opportunity to shift an employee's behavior."
  • Don't dump on employees. "Nobody can handle 10 areas where they need to improve," says Turknett. "Narrow a discipline session down to focus on two or three areas where the employee needs to do better, and don't schedule a session to last more than a half-hour."
  • Don't play favorites. "Employees want to believe that disciplinary procedures are fair. You need to be consistent in your treatment of all employees and you don't want an atmosphere of capriciousness and favoritism," says James Walsh, a former risk management consultant, and the author of Rightful Termination: Defensive Strategies for Hiring and Firing in a Lawsuit-Happy Age (Silver Lake Publishing).
  • Don't discriminate. It seems obvious, but it's worth repeating: "An employee should be disciplined because of what he did, not who he is and never because of race, color, gender or anything else," says Hilgert.
  • Don't act as if you've never made a mistake. "Don't become godlike. You need some humility even when criticizing others," urges Turknett. Act the know-it-all who's never made a goof, and that's a sure way to turn off a worker because the employee knows you've flubbed, too. Be human in your approach to this delicate situation, and the employee will be that much more ready to listen to you.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Simply sidestepping the don'ts is a major step to delivering discipline that gets results, but even more can be learned when you accentuate the positive. Turning negative behaviors around relies heavily on your own attitude. "The way to view discipline isn't as a negative but as a way to help an employee grow. Discipline is part of what any good coach does," says Turknett. Redirect your focus to helping a problem employee grow, and, instantly, what might have seemed a downer becomes a positive for both of you.

Giving your employee thoughtful, substantial input can also put a positive spin on a discipline session. "Always approach disciplining an employee with a goal in mind: What behavior do you want the employee to change and how?" urges Markovitz.

Is Tom always missing deadlines? Knowing this is a beginning--specify a few concrete instances where Tom bungled, and that's something to focus on in a discipline session. But you need to go further if you want positive results because, odds are, Tom doesn't have a clue about how to correct the problem. "Usually people don't change because they don't know how to," says Hollands. By all means, ask the employee for suggestions about how he or she expects to do better, but go into any discipline session keeping in mind your own ideas for improvement. The employee won't resent this; in fact, he'll probably be grateful and appreciative that you put in the time to come up with a prescription for greater success.

What if the employee blows his top and gets belligerent in his self-defense? "The good manager expects argument," says Hollands. It's human nature for an employee to get defensive, and a bit of venting is fine. "Give him five minutes," suggests Hollands. "Listen reflectively, then go back to your main point: `Tom, you've missed these last five deadlines, and we have to find out why and figure out how you're going to meet your future deadlines.' "

On Probation

For discipline to stick, however, you have to set out consequences: What will the employee lose if he or she doesn't change?

First make sure you've asked yourself what really motivates this employee, urges Key. Why? Different employees want different things. Tell an employee who doesn't give a hoot about climbing the corporate ladder that he or she may lose out on a possible promotion, and you'll get no results. For a consequence to matter and actually make a difference, it needs to matter to that employee.

Once you've discussed the problem, helped come up with solutions and finally told the employee what consequences he or she may face, the session is complete--but that doesn't mean the issue should be forgotten. "Set up a time for a follow-up meeting in a few weeks," suggests Key. "That makes it clear you mean business." Neglect to set a follow-up, and the worker will likely strike this meeting up to your passing pique and won't take it seriously. But with a follow-up already scheduled, he or she will know you're genuinely insisting on change for the better and you plan to follow through with it.

At the follow-up session, if there's been forward motion by the employee, don't let it go unnoticed. Let the employee know you are aware of the effort he or she is putting in. "Praise it. Reinforce even approximations of success," says Hollands, who warns against holding the bar too high. "Shaping new behavior takes constant, significant attention."

It's a strong, solid approach to putting employees back on course--but will it get results? There's no guarantee. A lot depends on your execution as well as the individual employee's mindset. But chew on this worrisome thought from Hilgert: "Discharge is a failure of discipline. Whenever you cannot make an employee productive, it's a failure."

Just remember that changing most employees' behavior is within your reach. "We can learn how to discipline better," says Hollands. "Most managers find it tough, but with practice, most will get better." And the payoff is that so, too, will your workers--and that makes this one of the best rewards around.

Contact Sources

Growth & Leadership Center Inc., (650) 966-1144, http://www.glcweb.com

Silver Lake Publishing, (888) 663-3091, http://www.silverlakepub.com

Summit Consulting Group, (312) 899-9900, http://www.argosyeducation.com

Turknett Leadership Group, (770) 270-1723, http://www.argosyeducation.com