Dealing With Discipline For the First Time


One of the hardest parts of a leadership role, no matter how long you have been doing it, is discipline. Unfortunately, it’s one of the things that is very hard to teach and can change depending on the situation. Dealing with discipline for the first time is one of the scariest things you can do so here are a few pointers to help you out.

Ahead of time

  1. Do your research. It is often the case that you will be disciplining an employee based on knowledge obtained from another individual. It is really important that you take your time to thoroughly research the issue. Knowing all the facts, including any extenuating circumstances will help.
  2. Understand the aim of the disciplinary action. Every employee has value and it is your job, as the leader, to do your best to find where that employee best fits within your organization. Disciplinary action is a progression with the intent of helping the employee succeed. It won’t always work and termination may be the result but you owe it to your employee and your organization to try.
  3. Make sure you fully understand your organizations progressive discipline procedure and any differences between bargaining and non-bargaining employees. If needed, talk to your HR department and discuss the issue with them.

Before the meeting

  1. Think about where you will be having the meeting. Is your office appropriate, is a conference room better? Do you need to think about being away from the employee’s work location to save any embarrassment? Ensuring privacy and showing respect for the employee is going to help this be more productive.
  2. Little details like where you want to sit in relation to the employee matter. If this is a coaching type meeting, then sitting next them at a table may be more appropriate. If this is more formal, or if there is some potential for an outburst, across from them may work better.
  3. Invite another person to the meeting. This should be another manager and not an employee but should also be someone that you can trust to keep the meeting confidential. Try and find someone that the employee feels comfortable talking in front of.

During the meeting

  1. Keep on your toes. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, you don’t know how the employee will react. You may need to change your approach mid-way through to get the most out of the meeting.
  2. Keep your cool. No matter what the employee says or does, keep your cool. Keep calm and an even tone of voice. Don’t get angry or try to justify your decision. You have already done your prep work and your research. Stick to your plan and say what you want to say. Give the employee the opportunity to talk and take that into consideration but if you do think you may need to change your stance based on what they say, don’t do it in the meeting. Give yourself time to consider their response and get back to them.
  3. Try to explain that this is to help the employee succeed, not bring them down. Use personal stories in explaining the reason for the meeting and even similar experiences that have happened to you.
  4. Set specific expectations. Leave the meeting clarifying what you expect moving forward. This can include items that both of you commit to including improvement plans. Set timescales for the expectations and how you are going to measure success.

After the meeting

  1. Prepare a summary of the meeting, listing areas discussed and any agreed action. Make sure the employee gets a copy of this and signs it. Documentation throughout the disciplinary process is very important and this is one step you cannot miss.
  2. Schedule any subsequent actions such as a one week follow-up, and make sure you stick to them. Make sure that you honor any commitments you have made to the employee. This shows that you really want them to succeed and will do whatever you can to help them.
  3. Hold the employee accountable for their actions and progress. They need to put effort into succeeding and they have a choice whether to participate or not. If they choose not to, don’t be afraid to move to the next level. It sounds tough, but it has to be. Those employees who truly want to try to improve will demonstrate that, those that do not, will not change.

Dealing with discipline for the first time is hard and I’d like to say it gets easier – it doesn’t. Even seasoned leaders can dread disciplinary action. To me however, the only thing worse than taking disciplinary action, is inaction.

Claire Jubb is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

This is very useful advice, and too seldom acted on or followed.

We hear much about “poor performers”, yet government hiring practices are often far more stringent than those employed in the private sector. So how do we hire people in such a picky fashion but end up with poor performers? My sense is that it is because supervisors are often uncomfortable handling situations that require discipline and getting an employee back on the straight and narrow. I certainly don’t blame them – few people enjoy meting out disciplinary action – but it allows things to fester until one ends up having to deal with something ugly and downright unpleasant. Better to know how to effectively and humanely nip things in the bud.

So thanks for this.