Are you unintentionally rewarding bad or substandard behavior? If so, it’s time to call “Time’s up.” If you are a leader who is optimistic about people and who enjoys good relationships with employees, you might sometimes choose to give an employee the benefit of the doubt in an instance of a workplace mistake. That in itself might not cause a problem, but then you do it again – you pass it off as that employee having a bad day, bad circumstances, or you make some other excuse for them.  When there is no feedback and no correction, employees’ behavioral habits start to form. And once they are ingrained they are very difficult to change.

Shortchanging the individual, harming the group

We’re all grownups at work (at least in theory!), but when you frequently overlook substandard or bad behavior you aren’t holding that employee accountable for appropriate adult behavior. You are, in effect, treating the individual like you’re a benevolent parent and he or she is a child who can’t be truly held responsible. Not only do you not get the business results you want and need; when this goes on too long you actually erode the individual’s sense of responsibility for his results. Moreover, you reinforce a victim mentality in the employee where she comes to believe that she is being acted upon and doesn’t have the power to affect her own outcomes.

This managerial conflict avoidance impacts more than just the person for whom you have been giving dozens of chances. Other individuals in your company see what you’re doing and interpret your inaction as leadership weakness, or even as showing favoritism toward the offending employee. The bad behavior, uncorrected, begins to spread, because the team starts to believe that you think it’s OK. The attitude of “Why bother?” infiltrates the team. And the erosion of performance standards begins.

Two business women having a casual meeting or discussion in the city. Shallow depth of field.

You need to nip this behavior before it grows to full flower. Arrange to sit down face to face with the individual and have a disciplinary interview.

Steps in the disciplinary interview

  1. Establish a time when you and the employee can be uninterrupted, and meet in a private setting so the conversation can be kept confidential. Your goal is not to embarrass or humiliate the employee – the goal is to help him or her choose to change behavior.
  2. Describe the undesirable behavior in observable terms without evaluative language. “I saw you return from lunch at least 15 minutes late 3 times last week.”
  3. Describe the impact the behavior has on you (or on the rest of the staff). “When you return late from lunch it pushes our entire appointment schedule behind for the rest of the day, and it keeps our customers waiting. We are working hard toward providing prompt, high quality service, and we need full staffing to get that done.”
  4. Reinforce the behavioral expectation. “I need you return from lunch promptly after your allotted ½ hour. If there are other circumstances that would require you to be out longer, please make arrangements with me in advance – at the latest by the beginning of the shift.”
  5. Pause to allow the employee an opportunity to respond. It is not uncommon for the employee to react defensively. You may need to repeat the impact and the expectation portions of the conversation. This is not a negotiation on standards; rather it is a training conversation to reinforce the standards.
  6. Provide a timeframe/deadline for the employee to improve the behavior and establish consequences that you intend to implement in the case that it doesn’t. “I need you to place particular focus on this for the next 30 days. If you do not show consistent improvement by then I will have to consider taking further action, which could include unpaid time off.” (Describe whatever potential consequences are consistent with your company’s disciplinary policy.)
  7. Express confidence in the employee’s ability to improve, and come to agreement with him on how you will measure progress. Follow through as you described in #6 above.
  8. Make a point to call attention to improvements that you notice, thus reinforcing the desired behavior.
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