Ask Addi P.: How to Discipline Employees With Compassion

Employee Discipline

Dear Addi P.,

I dread dealing with employee discipline for misconduct or breaking a company policy — especially if it means termination. But I know it's sometimes necessary. How do I handle the unpleasant task of disciplining or terminating an employee with compassion?

— Reprimander in Chief

Dear Reprimander in Chief,

This is always a challenging situation because despite any infractions that may have taken place, every employee deserves respect and an opportunity to be heard.

Defining Misconduct

It's important to have a clear set of workplace policies in place when you face an employee challenge. Your rules for employee discipline should cover basic issues like prohibiting inappropriate relationships, insubordination, intoxication, theft and confidentiality breaches. As every organization is different, you'll need to create a customized set of workplace policies.

Make sure all your employees know what kinds of misconduct could result in immediate termination, and be consistent in enforcing the rules. Be open to discussions with employees who may have concerns. Their perspective could be invaluable. But stand firm on policies that are critical to the mission and survival of your business.

Taking the Right Approach

Document any policy infractions in writing, and give the employee concrete direction about how you want the behavior to change. Referring back to passages in your written policies can help employees understand that the matter at hand is both serious and not an unwarranted personal attack.

Make sure discipline takes place in private, although consider having a witness attend the meeting, such as an HR representative. If your employee's co-workers overhear, it can be humiliating. A lack of privacy can also affect your staff at large, as everyone may start to fear that they could receive a public talking to.

Ensure that you pick an appropriate time, as well. For example, you don't want to discipline an employee right before they're slated to give a big presentation. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid disciplining employees right before their vacation. They may worry that their job won't be there when they return.

A Clean Break

Let's say you've offered guidance and given several warnings, but the employee's behavior hasn't improved. By now, relations between the employee and other staffers affected by this behavior may have deteriorated. Their bad attitude may be seeping into customer relations, placing the viability of your company at risk. The employee's actions may even be putting themselves or your business in legal jeopardy.

Talk things over with the employee's direct supervisor, if that's not you, and reach an agreement about whether it's time to consider terminating employment. Talk to your counsel and ensure you have fully considered any legal risks and consequences. If you have decided that termination is the correct route, ensure you have all of the proper documentation in place, and consider preparing a talk track in advance. When you're ready to proceed, let the employee's manager lead the conversation. Consider having an HR representative present.

Skip the small talk. State the purpose of the meeting and inform the employee of the termination decision. Explain the reasons for termination, making sure you keep calm and remain respectful. Refrain from belittling or insulting the employee.

Ditch any comment about what a difficult decision this is for you. You may think it will make the employee feel better to know how hard it is to terminate them. Hint: It probably won't.

Give the employee an opportunity to respond, if they so choose. Some employees may react to termination with anger. Do not respond with anger, in turn. In extreme cases, you may foresee a violent reaction and should be prepared to call security or the police to escort the employee off the premises.

Compassion Counts

Something your terminated employee probably will remember with appreciation — if only after the shock wears off — is your sincere thanks for their contributions to your company. Even if things have soured between you, that kind of acknowledgment matters.

Be sensitive to the employee's need for privacy and dignity. Unless you need to cut off the employee's access to the building immediately for security reasons, consider allowing them to clean out their workspace during nonbusiness hours. That way, they'll be spared the embarrassment of the long march out with their box of belongings in front of gawking co-workers.

For more tips on the art of managing employee discipline with compassion, see Firing at Will, by former employment lawyer Jay Shepherd. Take heed of Shepherd's warning that companies that treat their employees poorly end up with the most personnel problems — not to mention a higher potential for backlash from terminated workers. He offers sound advice for hiring the right employees and creating a workplace where the need to terminate someone is rare.

Take care,

Addi P.

Addi P. is a digital character who represents the human expertise of ADP. The questions and challenges come from professionals who manage people at companies of all sizes. The advice comes from ADP experts who have a deep understanding of the issues and a passion for helping leaders create a better workplace. If you have a challenge you'd like to pose for Addi P, complete this simple form.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and not legal, insurance, financial or tax advice. The information and services ADP provides should not be deemed a substitute for the advice of a professional who can better address your specific concern and situation. Any information provided here is by nature subject to revision and may not be the most current information available on the subject matter discussed.