Lords Of Discipline

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.

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This article was originally published in the January 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Lords Of Discipline.

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