Feedback and Accountability in the Disciplinary Process
Disciplining employees is always a tough task to handle, so it’s not surprising that many leaders and employees have a fear of the disciplinary process. However, discipline is a necessary part of business. That’s because sometimes, despite people’s best intentions, course correction must occur. As leaders who are tasked with doling out discipline, we should be careful to focus on the company’s needs in addition to the well-being of our employees throughout the process. We also need to keep in mind that our employees are our most valuable asset and should be treated with respect regardless of circumstances. In the end, although the disciplinary process can cause anxiety, fear and a host of other emotions, it can be a win-win for both sides.
When I started in this industry over 25 years ago, a nickname was bestowed upon me – I became known as “Grunt.” If I did anything that my foreman did not like, descriptive yet not-so-nice words escaped from his mouth, and I was threatened with unemployment. In another incident, I once watched a seasoned journeyman accidentally run a bucket into a phase, after which he was told by the foreman to grab his tool bag and lunch and get off the job. We know now that this kind of discipline and correction would never fly in today’s workplace – and it shouldn’t. Both leaders and employees deserve a disciplinary process that is fair and puts a focus on giving our employees – and the workplace – a chance for a positive forward direction.
The Human Element
In any corrective process, the different parties involved have different needs. What the employer wants in most cases are safe, professional and productive employees. For their part, employees also want a work environment that is safe and provides the opportunities and resources to meet their professional goals. To achieve all that, employers and employees first must understand these four human performance principles.
- Humans will make mistakes. We are not robots that can be programmed to do things perfectly every time. Even the most highly trained and experienced employees with the best of intentions will make mistakes.
- Good, professional leaders can and need to determine whether the issue in question involved an unintentional action versus an intended action that violated safety rules and/or other established procedures.
- Humans do not like to be in the spotlight when something goes wrong. During the incident investigation process, leaders should focus on what went wrong with their system instead of focusing on who made the mistake. By doing this, leaders will get greater buy-in from the employee or employees who are under review.
- Mature adults want to do the right thing. Leaders need to focus on this and not on emotions, personalities, background, experience, training or hearsay.
Feedback is an enormous part of the disciplinary process. So, what feedback do you – as a leader – need to give to your employees and how should you deliver it? Here’s one example: Instead of saying in an emotional manner, “Hey, I have told you 100 times that you have to show up for work on time,” sit the employee down in a one-on-one environment to discuss why it is important for him or her to show up on time.
However, feedback shouldn’t be one-sided. What feedback do employees need to give their leaders? It’s true that employees tend to not give much feedback to leaders out of a feeling of fear or discomfort, but employees should work through those feelings and take the time to discuss and clarify things with their leaders, such as what training is needed to prevent future recurrences or the need to have certain rules and regulations explained and clarified.
Accountability is another big part of the disciplinary process. Do you think a leader should expect a certain level of accountability from his or her employees? The short answer is yes, yet it is the leader’s responsibility to continually work to develop each employee and provide them with opportunities to demonstrate increasing levels of accountability.
Here’s another question: Is there a level of accountability that an employee should expect from their leader? Again, the short answer is yes. One of the very basic expectations of all employees is the expectation of a safe work environment. Leaders need to hold themselves accountable to ensure that they are doing everything required of them to keep employees safe and able to perform their assigned tasks.
The Leader’s Role
Now that we’ve covered two of the major pieces of the disciplinary process – feedback and accountability – I want to provide some additional guidance about how leaders can work to prevent the need to discipline an employee, plus some things to keep in mind if you do find yourself engaged in the process.
- So much of your role as a leader is about your attitude. If you have a condescending or woe-is-me attitude, you will reap what you sow. Leaders must have a positive and supportive attitude when interacting with employees.
- Never assume anything. We all know the old saying about the word “assume.” Leaders must deal with the facts only. In addition, if an employee is going to be disciplined, leaders must research employees’ actions to the point where there is no supposition, and they should invite others knowledgeable about the situation into the process.
- Remove emotion. My mother used to tell me that when speaking with others, the conversation is over when someone raises their voice – now we are arguing. When you’re speaking to employees about a difficult situation, the conversation can get intense, but it’s your job as a leader to set the tone of the conversation, stay calm and lead by example.
- Be fair and consistent. Leaders must do both during the disciplinary process and in general. Just because an employee is, say, your go-to guy does not mean that he should be treated better or differently than other employees. We all have to follow established procedures and rules.
- Be a true leader. Provide the resources that make your employees successful and remove the barriers that prevent them from becoming successful. Ensure there is mutual understanding between you and your employees regarding expectations and job performance.
The Employee’s Role
You’d be hard-pressed to find an employee who derives any satisfaction from being disciplined due to an error that he or she made. Here are five ideas that employees should keep in mind to help them improve in their role and avoid disciplinary action.
- Do your part and be open to direction.
- Follow all rules and best practices. If you find yourself objecting to what is happening or the way things are going, stop and ask questions. Ask for necessary training and be part of your company’s positive direction forward.
- Have a good attitude. Make sure your glass is always half full as opposed to half empty. Smile and enjoy life.
- Take charge of your own destiny. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Take the lead with your co-workers in coming up with solutions to problems.
- Routinely request feedback from leaders and co-workers. Use this information to better understand your job performance and identify areas where improvement and corrections can be made.
Win-Win: It is Possible
The disciplinary process is tough on everyone, but leaders engage in it because it’s the right thing to do. On-the-job errors and other difficult issues must be addressed in order to maintain a safe, comfortable working environment for everyone. If done correctly, the end result of disciplinary action can be a win-win situation. To help you achieve a win-win, consider these four pieces of guidance.
- Employees are human and prone to error, yet inherently they want to do what is right. When leading, and when working through the disciplinary process, remember to always take the high road and keep in mind that most people don’t come to work with the intention of making errors or hurting themselves or others.
- Discipline should be a positive process, although it may not always feel that way, and employees deserve to be treated professionally. Do your best to make the process both positive and meaningful for all involved.
- Leaders and employees sometimes cannot find common ground, so occasionally the disciplinary process involves assisting an employee in finding gainful employment elsewhere. Good leaders recognize when this is necessary and will step up to work through the situation with the employee. If done right, the employee will understand and agree.
- Your attitude and your effort are two of the few things in life that you can control. Think positive, stay curious and do the best job you can. Lead by example as employees are eager to follow their leaders to higher ground.
In closing, the disciplinary process is a growth opportunity for both employees and leaders. The idea of discipline can invoke fear, but done correctly – in a caring, professional manner – it becomes a tool we can use to empower employees and inspire them to become better at what they do.
About the Author: Mack Turner, CUSP, CUSA, is the executive director of the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction (www.ispconline.com) and the board chairman and a founding member of the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network (www.usoln.org).