The Dos and Don’ts of Discipline

boy wearing dunce hat by chalkboard

One of the most frustrating situations for any manager to address is when an employee is not meeting the performance objectives of his or her job, and discipline is needed.  In order for your employee to understand that you correct and redirect because you care about the employee’s success, it becomes imperative for you to consistently demonstrate positive discipline within the framework of legal compliance.

Positive discipline takes place by holding what I refer to as a counseling session. While some might want to call it a warning notice, this carries a negative connotation that can start the session off on the wrong foot.  Counseling is sharing with an employee the problem issue and giving the employee the opportunity to correct the behavior.  A counseling session is most successful when you clearly demonstrate that you are committed to the employee’s success. As you deliver the content, your strength of character and process shift the employee’s focus from the negative toward what is possible in the future—a positive outcome, if the employee chooses to correct the problem.

If you as a manager can master the art of disciplining your employees through counseling, you will gain the reputation for being both fair and caring. In addition, by positively disciplining your employees, you can increase their level of productivity and motivation while dramatically lowering the potential for litigation.   Below is a list of practical and actual items to consider when preparing to administer a counseling session.

The Practical Items in a Counseling Session

1)    Do use a separate counseling session to address each problem. Don’t try to lump together more than one discipline issue.

2)    Don’t wait. Provide discipline as soon as possible so as not to lose the impact of the incident.

3)    Do always have a witness present for a counseling session, ALWAYS! Your witness should be someone seen as being neutral, such as a representative from human resources. If you are counseling an employee of the opposite sex, have your witness be the same sex as your employee.

4)    Do remember that, legally, if it wasn’t written, it didn’t happen. It is vital to maintain a proverbial paper trail of how you counseled with your employee both consistently and fairly. Prepare a simple counseling form that contains basic information to document that you’ve covered the information contained in the form:

  • the employee’s name
  • session date
  • an explanation of the area needing improvement
  • a blank area to explain any new information gathered during the session
  • another blank space to write in the action or remedy agreed upon
  • lines for names, dates, and signatures of the employee, witness, and you, the manager

5)    Do be prepared. In addition to your write-up of the issue, make copies of your support documents before the session begins (e.g., reports that show metrics or goals not being met). Be sure to support the session with objective information only; do not give opinions or personal bias. Ask yourself the question, “If I were to leave tomorrow, and this issue went to court, would my counseling session report stand on its own merits?”

6)    Do be sensitive. Show discretion and meet in a quiet location away from others.

7)    Do follow the rule of just cause. Remember to treat everyone the same in the same situation.

8)    Do think about the purpose of the session. Make sure you are focused on growing the employee and helping him or her succeed, not showing you are right.

9)    Do remember that how you present the counseling session is your choice; correcting the problem is the choice of the employee.

The Actual Counseling Session

1)    Don’t read verbatim from the counseling report when starting off the session. Do share the issue in a narrative format. This helps put the employee at ease.

2)    Do remember that an employee in a counseling session usually has one goal in mind: to leave the session!  Let the employee know he or she may leave once he or she can restate why he or she is at the session and what he or she will do to correct the problem.  Repeat the session as many times as it takes until this occurs.

3)    Don’t be disheartened or angry if the employee cannot repeat the issue and solution back to you the first time. His or her initial goal is to leave the session, not to listen.

4)    Do remain calm, especially if you have to go over a session several times. Don’t get frustrated or mad during any part of the session.

5)    Do read the counseling report at the end, including any new information you just gathered and recorded, to make sure you have covered everything. This ensures that what is said is the same as what is written.

6)    Do have the employee sign off on the session. Present the signing as a mutual commitment by both of you to gain positive change in the target area. Don’t be irritated if the employee refuses to sign the session.  Simply write “refused to sign” on the signature line.

7)    Do give the employee a copy of the counseling report directly after the session.

8)    Do always keep in mind your goal during discipline . . . to do everything possible to help your employee to succeed.

9)    Lastly, do remember that counseling sessions are not easy; they take practice, practice, and more practice. Role-play your sessions until you feel comfortable giving them.

As difficult and unpleasant as it may be, administering discipline is an everyday, necessary part of your job description as a manager. Consistently treating everyone the same in the same situation must become the benchmark if you hope to be known for valuing your direct reports and helping them succeed. Not only does the law require it, but, whether they show it or not, your employees also desire positive discipline. By proactively correcting employee problems before they become irreparable, you will build a stronger team, raise their productivity, motivation, and morale, and impact your entire organization.



About the author:

Ron Smedley is president of Synergistic Resource Associates, a full-service human resource/development consulting group that works directly with both marketplace and ministry organizations.  As a professional human resource generalist, Ron is often called upon in the area of labor law interpretation and policy/procedure writing with the focus on practically, strategically, and relationally synergizing the systems of the organization with the development of their leadership and employees.  Besides consulting full-time, Ron instructs graduate adult students at Biola University and Claremont Graduate Universities within leadership, performance management, personal and corporate conflict, human resource strategy and ethics courses.

Ron’s passion is seeing men, women and organizations grow beyond their paradigm and the “box” they so often place themselves within.  For questions or support surrounding this article or other people development areas, email him at or call 714.993.5003. His office is located in Placentia, California.


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