During my career I have partnered with many managers to help them correct their employees’ poor performance (or bad behavior )using disciplinary documents, such as a written warning or final opportunity memo. We have worked together to deliver clear communications to help the employee understand their shortcomings and how they can improve. I have also worked with managers who are not interested in helping their employees at all. They have no patience for imperfection and are only interested in terminating poor performers, sometimes at the first sign of weakness.

There are two ways to give discipline to an employee

  1. You want/need to fire this person and you are giving discipline because Human Resources told you it would reduce your risk of a lawsuit to have some type of documentation
  2. You want/need this person to get better. You genuinely want to point out that what they did was wrong and how to fix it.

The biggest difference between scenario one and scenario two is that in scenario one you are talking AT the person and in scenario two you are talking WITH the person. While both are valid managerial techniques, only one will yield positive results.

Disciplining with empathy is about having a conversation with the person who has done something wrong or who has demonstrated poor performance. It is about listening to their side of the story and explaining your side. During a disciplinary conversation that includes empathy you will work with the person to help them get better.

There are some simple steps to help make this happen:

  1. Do not go into the conversation with the intent to eventually terminate the person’s employment, but rather to help the person be a better employee.
  2. Be sure to understand the employees side of the story. Ask questions to get to the root of the problem. Was it a misunderstanding of expectations? Did they not know the rules? Are they not trained in how to handle the situation properly?
  3. Take time to explain what you expect moving forward. Talk to the person about your expectations and talk to the person about their future at the company.
  4. Get their agreement to change. End the conversation with a mutual agreement to move forward based on the conversation you had.

To be clear, you are still disciplining the person, a written warning or final opportunity memo will go into their file. I never advocate ‘letting things go’ to be nice. In fact ‘letting things go’ is one of the worst managerial techniques you can employ. When you lean to the side of being a nice guy/gal you are actually doing a disservice to yourself and your employee. You will continue to be frustrated by their performance or behavior. They will continue to act in the same manner, as no one has ever told them to change.

The next time you find yourself in a frustrating situation that requires disciplinary action, take the time to talk to the person who is frustrating you. Using simple techniques to talk WITH the person, instead of AT the person will make ALL the difference in the outcome.

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