Documentation is essential when it comes to recording employee disciplinary action, yet it’s often an afterthought for small business owners. Instead of having a detailed history at their fingertips at all times, many owners find themselves building a case after the fact, which is a recipe for disaster.

Choose Your Words Carefully

When documenting employee issues, the language you use is more important than you might think. There’s a big difference between writing “Jeff acts crazy” and “Jeff displays undesirable behavior.” Crazy is subjective, while examples of undesirable behavior can be outlined in an employee handbook.

Federal laws protect against discriminatory discipline or termination based on:
  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity)
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Age (40 or older)
  • Genetic information (including family medical history)

Avoid These Discipline Missteps

Words matter, so make sure to use the right ones for disciplinary documentation. Though you may think a sternly worded warning will inspire change, the wrong words could be taken as a personal attack, creating the exact opposite reaction you intended. Here are seven common mistakes business owners make when addressing employee issues in writing.

  1. Labeling without substance. Words such as “crazy” or “lazy” or “bad attitude” or “hysterical” are subjective, especially without examples to substantiate your claim. It’s best to avoid them altogether. Instead, use statements to illustrate how an employee was out of line: “William was told on two previous occasions that his tardiness was unacceptable. The Employee Handbook clearly states business hours are ….” Be concise and nonjudgmental.
  2. Criticizing employee intent. Unless you’re inside Steve’s head, you don’t know for sure that he “doesn’t take his job seriously.” Intent is largely indefensible in a courtroom, so avoid using it. Instead, state examples of Steve’s activities that counter the desired behavior.
  3. Focusing on the person instead of the behavior. You may have a personal opinion about an employee or an employee’s actions, but keep those away from any disciplinary documents. Concentrate on the incident or behavior. Stick to the facts, and don’t include opinions about the employee or comment on personality traits. Instead of saying, “Karen’s wardrobe is not stylish,” describe specific instances when her attire didn’t follow the corporate dress code.
  4. Overusing inflammatory or embellished language. Two words you should always refrain from and never use: always and never. Unless you can illustrate with proof that Robert “always clocks out early” or “never gets to work on time,” avoid statements like this. Exaggerating, even innocently, could damage your credibility if you’re called to testify.
  5. Using language that illustrates uncertainty on the manager’s behalf. Avoid phrases such as “It would appear” or “It would seem likely.” Employees (and a courtroom) might think you don’t have first-hand knowledge of the issue. Instead of saying, “It appears you don’t understand how to use our scheduling software,” say, “You have missed three shifts in the past month due to not signing into the scheduling software at the beginning of each week.”
  6. Forgetting to include consequences for continued undesirable behavior. Every discipline document must include the actions you will take if the employee doesn’t address the concern moving forward. Clearly outline the violation, set a timeframe for addressing it, and state what will happen if the problem isn’t resolved. For example: “We will review your progress in one month. In the event the issue persists, a final warning will be drafted and added to your file.” It’s wise to have a discipline policy as part of your employee handbook to ensure all employees are aware of the process in the event discipline is necessary. It’s also a good idea to direct employees to the policy when they step out of line so they are reminded about your policy.
  7. Disciplining without offering corrective suggestions. Remember, the goal is to encourage employees to move to a desired behavior instead of attacking them for shortcomings. Provide specific examples when employees exhibited undesired behavior, and then show what the desired behavior is, along with suggestions about how they can progress in the right direction. For example: “The employee handbook says smoking is not permitted inside the building. Therefore, if you want to smoke during your breaks, please use the designated areas outside.”

Stay the Course with Progressive Discipline

Progressive discipline is the process of using increasingly stern measures with employees who do not correct problems after having several opportunities to do so. The progression usually starts with verbal acknowledgment of a concern, followed by written warnings, final warnings, suspension and termination. Though the term “progressive discipline” sounds aggressive, it’s not a one-way ticket to termination. The ultimate goal is to correct the behavior vs. dismissal. If the employee doesn’t improve, the process allows you to document the journey though dismissal.

Take Advantage of Proven Resources

Detailing employee behavior clearly, consistently and legally will prepare you for success in the courtroom should an employee ever sue for wrongful termination. The adage, “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen,” certainly applies here.

The Progressive Discipline Smart App makes the process easy by streamlining the record-keeping process. The app ensures consistency, creates an essential paper trail and, most important, protects businesses from possible legal disputes.

  • Document all employee discipline issues in writing.
  • Don‘t use language that is inflammatory or judgmental.
  • Suggest corrective behavior and provide a timeline for improvement.
  • Include consequences if the issue is not addressed.
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