Problem Employees: Counseling and Discipline

By Certo, S.C.

Edited by Paul Ducham


An employee who misses work, even part of a day, is expensive for an employer. The company frequently must pay for those unproductive hours—for example, by providing sick pay to an employee who calls in sick. In addition, the other employees may be less productive when they have to cover for someone who is absent or tardy. A recent survey found that absenteeism cost employers an average of $645 per employee in 2003.

 Of course, employees who really are sick should take time off. As discussed in “Supervision and Ethics,” the company provides sick days for good reasons: to allow employees to rest and recover and to prevent them from infecting the rest of the workforce. Recent research indicates that absenteeism is associated with physical health stressors, including being diagnosed with a heart condition, being diagnosed with a chronic condition, and being hospitalized. It is important to note that psychological health stressors (e.g., depression, anxiety) were not significantly associated with absenteeism. Rather, employees seeking mental health treatment for psychological health stressors were more likely to show up for work even when a sickness absence was justified. In other words, employees seeking mental health treatment were more likely to work under suboptimal conditions. Whatever the cause of absenteeism, problems arise when absences are unexcused or recur with suspicious regularity. In addition, missing work is often a sign of a deeper problem, such as a family crisis, anger about something at work, or plans to leave the organization.

 Effective action against tardiness and absenteeism targets the cause of this problem behavior. Unscheduled absences are more frequent at organizations where morale is poor. As shown in Figure 12.1, the most common reasons given for taking unscheduled time off are personal illness and family issues. Employers can help employees manage these needs through programs such as paid time-off banks, meaning employees are allowed a given number of paid days off, which they can use when they are sick, have family needs, or want to take a vacation. If an employee takes days off for doctors’ appointments or family crises, fewer days remain for vacationing. Wisco Industries offers positive reinforcement for good attendance: cash incentives to employees who work at least a minimum number of hours during each period. In addition, supervisors can reduce absenteeism by creating a positive work environment in which morale is high.



As a supervisor, you count on all the employees in your group to be at work, contributing to your group’s goals. You also want to set a good example of dedication and responsibility. But what about those days when you wake up with a sore throat, cough, or other sign that you’re coming down with a nasty cold? Shouldn’t you push through your weariness and make the trip to work?

 Probably not, says ethicist Bruce Weinstein. According to Weinstein, staying home from work is an ethical decision. He says it comes down to matters of fairness in four areas:

1. You can’t serve your clients, customers, or employees well when you feel wretched.

2. Infecting your co-workers with your germs is unkind. You probably don’t appreciate catching a cold from someone who served you or worked with you, and it’s not fair to do the same to others. Furthermore, the next person you infect could have a chronic illness or impaired immune system; for them, your illness could be serious.

3. Surprisingly, you may be costing your employer money by going to work. A study by researchers at Cornell University found that ill employees add to employers’ health costs.

4. When you’re sick, you need to take care of yourself. Ethics calls for you to treat everyone with kindness; it would be unfair to yourself to work when you need rest.

 For supervisors, this ethical question has another angle: What’s the ethical way to treat your workers when they’re the ones who are coughing, sneezing, and feeling miserable? Following Weinstein’s reasoning, the answer is clear: encourage them to stay home and get better. In the end, it will be easier for your group to meet its goals if everyone is feeling healthy.


When poor performance results from not understanding how to do a job, the solution is relatively simple. A supervisor must make sure that instructions are communicated clearly and that the employee is receiving the proper training. But sometimes an employee performs poorly or breaks rules because he or she chooses to do so. Such an employee may simply be uncooperative, or the employee may engage in insubordination, the deliberate refusal to do what a supervisor or other superior asks.

 Many kinds of negative behavior fall into these categories. An employee may have a generally poor attitude—criticizing, complaining, and showing a dislike for a supervisor and the organization. He or she might get into arguments over many kinds of issues. An employee may make an art form out of doing as little as possible. The employee might spend most of the day Socializing, joking around, or just moving slowly. Another employee might regularly fail to follow rules—“forgetting” to wear safety equipment or sign out at lunchtime. Some employees even blame the supervisor or organization when reprimanded. When the supervisor objects to a problem behavior (“Please don’t use your cell phone to make personal calls during work hours”), the employee twists the situation into something the supervisor is supposed to fix (“Well, how am I supposed to manage my kitchen renovation if I can’t take contractors’ calls at work?”). This type of behavior can go on endlessly unless the supervisor defines specific limits and requires the employee to figure out a way to stay within those limits or be disciplined.

 Although these problems are serious, it is important for supervisors to see the difference between employees who don’t do their work properly because they choose not to and employees who don’t do their work because they need help. One manager who has this skill is Mike Speckman, vice president of sales for inSilica, a company that sells semiconductors. Speckman once had a salesperson who was disorganized and spent almost every minute on existing customers, rather than cultivating the new ones that could help the company grow. Where some supervisors might have seen a lost cause, Speckman saw an employee with a desire to learn. He decided to travel with the salesperson on calls to prospective customers. On the first call, Speckman led the conversation to show how the work was to be done. On the second call, he and the salesperson worked as a team. On the third call, the salesperson took the lead, and Speckman was there just to watch and provide support. The coaching gave the salesperson the necessary confidence to become successful.


The abuse of alcohol and drugs by workers is costly in several ways. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, employees who use drugs are three times as likely to be tardy and more than three times as likely to be involved in an accident at work. Absences and medical costs also are much greater among drug abusers. And employees who abuse alcohol and drugs are far less productive than their co-workers who stay sober.

 Unfortunately, substance abuse is not uncommon at work. A study by the Department of Labor found that one-third of employees say drugs are illegally sold in their workplace, and one in five young employees say they have used marijuana while on the job. According to the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 1 out of 10 full-time and parttime workers abuse or are dependent on alcohol or drugs. The problem is much greater at companies that are small or medium-sized (under 500 employees), perhaps because these companies are less likely to have formal procedures for maintaining a drug-free workplace. In a study of seven companies in various industries, the cost of substance abuse by employees came to more than $5,000 for extra health insurance benefits and lost productivity.

 The americans with disabilities act(ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability, treats substance abuse arising from an addiction as a disability. Therefore, substance abuse may not be legal grounds for firing an employee. The supervisor should encourage the employee to get help, even if doing so requires adjusting the employee’s work schedule or permitting the employee to take a disability leave to get treatment. In addition, actions taken with regard to the employee should focus on work performance, not on the substance abuse itself. For example, a supervisor might warn, “If I catch you picking fights with your co-workers again, I will have to suspend you.” This warning addresses the employee’s job-related behavior.

 Although a supervisor must treat each employee fairly and avoid discrimination, he or she also has a responsibility to help ensure that the workplace is safe for employees and others. If an employee’s suspected substance abuse is creating a hazard, a supervisor must act. Again, the key is to address job-related behavior and job requirements, including safety. In addition to expecting supervisors to spot problem behavior, some companies for which safety is critical conduct random drug testing of employees. One of those companies is Ercole Electric, located in Fredericksburg, Maryland. Ercole’s president, Greg Semuskie, said, “My employees thanked me for starting a drug [testing] program. They all knew who was taking drugs, and they didn’t want to work with them. They told me they felt safer with this program.”


Security managers at Fortune 1000 companies recently responded to a Pinkerton survey by saying that workplace violence is their number one security threat.An estimated 2 million incidents of workplace violence occur each year, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, murder causes about 600 deaths on the job every year.

 Several factors contribute to workplace violence. Workers who abuse alcohol or drugs or who have psychological problems may be more likely to engage in violence at work. Employees who are under stress, either at work or away, may explode in violence. While other employees handle stress without becoming violent, problems are particularly likely if employees feel they are treated unfairly, fail to communicate their problems effectively, and feel frustrated and unable to do anything about their situation. Together, these circumstances suggest that supervisors may sometimes be able to head off or at least prepare to handle violence by paying close attention to their employees, fostering good communication, and Treating Employees fairly.

 Another factor associated with workplace violence is domestic violence. If an employee is being abused by a spouse, parent, or other third party, the abuser may carry violent behavior to the workplace. The employee might receive threatening phone calls or even disruptive visits from the abuser. Domestic violence is behind millions of days of absences each year, and millions more in lost productivity. The problem is widespread, with over one-fourth of women saying they are or have been victims of domestic violence.To address these business losses and out of concern for abused workers and their colleagues, some companies, including Macy’s and State Farm Insurance, offer information and help for employees who are victimized at work or at home. These efforts may include secure parking spaces, flexible hours, and referrals to Employee Assistance Programs for counseling.

 Whatever the cause, supervisors should be prepared for the possibility of workplace violence.They should be aware of warning signs such as an employee who appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, does not control angry outbursts, has a history of intimidating others, talks about or shows off weapons, and jokes about workplace violence. If an employee complains of feeling threatened by another employee or an outsider, the supervisor should take these concerns seriously. The supervisor also should work with the organization’s human resource department to develop and practice plans for moving to safety in the event of a violent incident. The supervisor should turn to the human resource department for assistance if a problem employee seems threatening and does not respond to the basic measures described in this chapter. In that case, or if an employee is coping with domestic violence, the necessary measures may require efforts beyond what the supervisor can provide.

 In the aftermath of workplace violence, employees often suffer psychological wounds that must be allowed to heal. The wise supervisor refrains from adopting the role of counselor but rather remains alert to those who may need special help, such as a referral for professional assistance or even reassignment or time off. After a shooting at Navistar in Melrose Park, Illinois, in February 2001, in which a former employee killed four workers, about 20 percent of the workforce took the next day off, and many spent the following day in counseling sessions to deal with complex feelings of grief, stress, and even guilt.


A variety of statistics indicate that stealing by employees is a huge problem. Although stores have to keep an eye out for shoplifters, for example, a national study found that almost 47 percent of losses were caused by employees. A survey of two dozen large Retailers found more than 3 percent of their employees had been caught stealing. And a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that companies lost $2.4 million to fraud in a recent year, with employees responsible for the majority of that loss.Figure 12.2 summarizes average tangible losses per employee theft in various types of retail stores.

 When the manager of a Beall’s Outlet store in the southeast began stealing small amounts of money from the cash register, she used various strategies to hide the thefts. Before long, she had taken $1,000, but even so, her misdeed might have gone undetected save for new software the company had installed to monitor cash register transactions. The computer program was able to monitor every sale, every voided sale, every “no sale,” and every refund, and security personnel were able to set up surveillance within three weeks of the first theft and collect enough evidence in the following week to confront the manager and file charges. Such monitoring software is being used more and more frequently.

 Not all thefts involve money or tangible goods. Employees can also “steal time” by giving the employer less work than they are paid for, taking extra sick leave, or altering their time cards. Lost time is also more and more often spent surfing the Internet. Various kinds of software can block particular Web sites from employees’ view and monitor Internet activity. Some of these “activity monitors” capture keystrokes and mouse movements (by recording how long certain windows stay active and open), and they also create a complete record of the computer’s use. Privacy issues come into play when such tools are used, and some observers feel they imply a lack of trust on the employer’s part that can be damaging to employee–employer relationships.

 The theft of information also is a serious and growing problem, made even easier by new communications technology. Recently, an administrative assistant at the Coca-Cola Company was charged with offering to sell trade secrets to PepsiCo. Pepsi tipped off executives of its rival, who notified the FBI. In other cases, employees did not adequately protect data on computers, and the computers were stolen by outsiders. An employee of PSA HealthCare, based in Norcross, Georgia, downloaded data about patients into a laptop computer, which the employee then carried out of the office. Later the computer was stolen from the employee’s car. This incident occurred even though PSA has policies forbidding employees from removing data from the company’s offices.

 The widespread nature of employee theft indicates that supervisors must be on guard against it. In addition to following the broad guidelines in this chapter for handling employee problems, supervisors should take measures to prevent and react to theft. Each organization has its own procedures, varying according to type of industry. In addition, supervisors should carefully check the background of anyone they plan to hire.

 To prevent information theft, the monitoring of employees may need to focus on access to and retrieval of data. For example, a financial services employee used his access to request credit reports for many customers. The employee then sold the data to companies that created fake identities for fraudulent purposes. Detecting exactly when and how employees are using data is extremely difficult, so employers are increasingly using high-tech tools. For example, access cards that employees swipe through a scanner provide a trail of electronic information about each employee’s use of the company’s information system.

 Supervisors should make sure that employees follow all procedures for record keeping. They should take advantage of ways to build employee morale and Involvement; employees who feel like a part of the organization are less likely to steal from it. Supervisors also should make sure employees understand the costs and consequences of theft. Perhaps most important, supervisors should set a good example by demonstrating ethical behavior.

 The Small Business Administration advises supervisors who suspect an employee is stealing not to investigate the crime themselves. Instead, they should report their suspicions to their manager and to the police or professional security consultants.

Figure 12.2


A supervisor should counsel employees when they need help determining how to resolve a problem that is affecting their work. Sometimes an employee will approach a supervisor with a problem, such as marriage worries or concern about doing a good job. At other times, a supervisor may observe that an employee seems to have a problem when, for example, the quality of the employee’s work is declining.

 It is essential for supervisors to remember that they lack training to help with many kinds of problems. They are not in a position to save a marriage, resolve an employee’s financial difficulties, or handle an alcoholic family member. A supervisor should help an employee solve a problem only when qualified to do so. In other cases, a supervisor should simply listen, express concern, and refer the employee to a trained professional. The human resources department may be able to suggest sources of help


Counseling involves one or more discussions between the supervisor and the employee. These sessions should take place where there will be privacy and freedom from interruptions. The sessions may be directive or nondirective (see Figure 12.3).

Directive versus Nondirective Counseling

The most focused approach to counseling is directive counseling, in which a supervisor asks an employee questions about a specific problem. The supervisor listens until he or she understands the source of the problem. Then the supervisor suggests ways to handle the problem.

 For example, assume that Bill Wisniewski, a computer programmer, has been absent a number of times during the past month. The supervisor might ask, “Why have you been missing so many days?” Wisniewski replies, “Because my wife has been sick, and someone needs to look after my kids.” The supervisor would follow up with questions about the condition of Wisniewski’s wife (for example, to learn whether the problem is likely to continue), the ages and needs of their children, and so on. Then the supervisor might suggest finding alternative sources of care, perhaps referring Wisniewski to a company Program Design to help with such problems.

 In most cases, a supervisor and employee will receive the greatest benefit when the supervisor helps the employee develop and change instead of merely looking for a solution to a specific problem. To accomplish this, the supervisor can use nondirective counseling. With this approach, a supervisor should primarily listen, encouraging the employee to look for the source of the problem and propose possible solutions. In the preceding example, a supervisor would ask openended questions such as “Would you tell me more about that?” Ideally, by working out his own solution, Wisniewski would find that he has the ability to resolve many family problems without missing a lot of work.

The Counseling Interview

The counseling interview starts with a discussion of what the problem is (see Figure 12.4). It then moves to a consideration of possible solutions and the selection of one solution to try. The interview ends with the supervisor scheduling a follow-up meeting.

 The person who requested the counseling begins by describing the problem. If the employee requested help, the employee should begin. If the supervisor set up the interview because something seemed wrong, the supervisor should begin. The supervisor should focus on behavior and performance—what people do, not who they are—and encourage the employee to do the same. For example, if the employee says, “The other employees are prejudiced against me,” the supervisor should ask the employee to describe what actions led to that conclusion. In addition, the supervisor should use the principles of active listening.

 Because counseling often occurs as a result of an employee’s personal problems, the employee may be emotional during counseling sessions. The supervisor needs to be prepared for crying, angry outbursts, and other signs of emotion. He or she should be calm and reassure the employee that these signs of emotion are neither good nor bad. Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to express emotions. Suppose a salesperson in a hardware store has a 10-year-old son with behavior problems. It would not be appropriate for the salesperson to express his worry and frustration by snapping at customers.

 Next, the supervisor and employee should consider ways to solve the problem. Instead of simply prescribing a solution, the supervisor usually can be more helpful by asking the employee questions that will help the employee come up with ideas. Employees are more likely to cooperate in a solution they helped develop. Asking an employee to suggest solutions can be an especially effective way to end constant whining and complaining by that employee. When the supervisor and employee agree on a particular solution, the supervisor should restate it to make sure the employee understands.

 Finally, the supervisor should schedule a follow-up meeting, which should take place just after the employee begins to see some results. At the follow-up meeting, the employee and the supervisor review their plans and discuss whether the problem has been or is being resolved. For example, in the case of the salesperson in the hardware store, the supervisor might say, “I’ve noticed that we haven’t received any more customer complaints about your service. In fact, one woman told me you went out of your way to help her.” Notice that the supervisor is focusing on work performance, which the supervisor is qualified to discuss, rather than on the employee’s family problems. If the employee replies, “Yes, I’ve been so much calmer ever since I started talking to that counselor about my son,” the supervisor has a good indication that the employee is resolving the problem.

Figure 12.3

Figure 12.4


In administering discipline, a supervisor should distinguish between discipline and punishment. Punishment is an unpleasant consequence given in response to undesirable behavior. Discipline, in contrast, is broader; it is a teaching process. The supervisor explains the significance and consequences of the employee’s behavior and then, if necessary, lets the employee experience those consequences.

 The specific ways in which a supervisor applies these steps may be dictated by company policies or the union contract, if any. Thus, a supervisor must be familiar with all applicable policies and rules. These should include respecting the rights of employees in the discipline process. Employees’ rights include the following:

• The right to know job expectations and the consequences of not fulfilling those expectations.
• The right to receive consistent and predictable management action in response to violations of the rules.
• The right to receive fair discipline based on facts.
• The right to question management’s statement of the facts and to present a defense.
• The right to receive progressive discipline (described in the next section).
• The right to appeal a disciplinary action.

The Discipline Process

Before administering discipline in response to problem behavior, supervisors need to have a clear picture of the situation. They may observe the problem themselves, or someone may tell them about the problem. In either case, supervisors need to collect the facts before taking further action.

 As soon as possible, a supervisor should meet with the employees involved and ask for each employee’s version of what happened. For example, a supervisor who believes that one of his or her employees is using the office telephone for excessive personal calls should not make hasty accusations or issue a general memo stating company policy about phone use. Rather, the supervisor should ask the employee directly and in private what his or her telephone conversations were about. In getting the employee’s version of a problem, a supervisor should use good listening practices and resist the temptation to get angry.

 When a supervisor observes and understands the facts behind problem behavior, disciplining an employee occurs in as many as four steps: warnings, suspension, demotion, and dismissal (see Figure 12.5). This pattern of discipline is “progressive” in the sense that the steps progress from the least to the most severe action a supervisor can take. A warning is unpleasant to hear but fulfills the important purpose of informing employees about the consequences of their behavior before more punitive measures are taken. Suspension, demotion, and discharge are more upsetting to an employee because they hurt the employee in the pocketbook.


A warning may be either written or oral. Some organizations have a policy that calls for an oral warning followed by a written warning if performance does not improve. Both types of warning are designed to make sure that the employee understands the problem. A warning should contain the following information:

• What the problem behavior is.
• How the behavior affects the organization.
• How and when the employee’s behavior is expected to change.
• What actions will be taken if the employee’s behavior does not change.

 Thus, a supervisor might say, “I have noticed that in the last two staff meetings, you have made hostile remarks. Not only have these disrupted the meetings, but they lead your co-workers to take you less seriously. I expect that you will refrain from such remarks in future meetings, or I will have to give you a suspension.” As in this example, the warning should be brief and to the point.

 In the case of a written warning, it is wise practice to ask the employee to sign the warning, which documents that the first step in the discipline process took place. If the employee refuses to sign the warning, even with minor changes, the supervisor should note the employee’s refusal or call in someone (such as the supervisor’s manager) to witness the refusal.


A suspension is the requirement that an employee not come to work for a set period of time, during which the employee is not paid. The length of the suspension might run from one day to one month, depending on the seriousness of the problem. Suspensions are useful when the employee has been accused of something serious, such as stealing, and the supervisor needs time to investigate.


A demotion is the transfer of an employee to a job with less responsibility and usually lower pay. Sometimes a demotion is actually a relief for an employee, especially if the employee has been goofing off or performing poorly because the job was more than he or she could handle. In such a case, the employee might welcome returning to a job where he or she is competent. More often, however, a demotion leads to negative feelings—a punishment that continues for as long as the employee holds the lower-level job.


The permanent removal of an employee from a job is called dismissal, or termination or discharge. The organization cannot really regard dismissal as a success because it then has to recruit, hire, and train a new employee. Nevertheless, a supervisor sometimes must dismiss an employee who commits a serious offense or who will not respond to other forms of discipline. Occasionally an employee or supervisor may decide that correcting a problem is impossible, or at least too difficult or expensive. In addition to continued failure to correct problem behavior, dismissal may occur because an employee deliberately damages the organization’s property, fights on the job, or engages in dangerous practices (e.g., a railroad engineer who drinks on the job).

 Dismissing an employee is never easy, but it is sometimes a necessary part of the job to ensure a positive work environment for the remaining employees. At Wire One Technologies, Ric Robbins had a sales representative who continuously sacrificed teamwork for personal gain. According to Robbins, a regional vice president, that employee would visit his colleagues’ offices and glance around, looking for clues to sales leads. The employee’s co-workers spent so much energy protecting themselves from the unethical employee that they couldn’t work effectively. Robbins had to fire the sales rep to preserve the team’s morale and performance.

 Many organizations have policies requiring a supervisor to involve higherlevel management before dismissing an employee. Supervisors should be familiar with any such policy and follow it.

 In following the steps in the discipline process, a supervisor should remember that the objective is to end the problem behavior. Asupervisor takes only as many steps as are necessary to bring about a change in behavior: The ultimate goal is to solve the problem without dismissing the employee.

Guidelines for Effective Discipline

When an employee is causing a problem—from tardiness to theft to lack of cooperation—the supervisor needs to act immediately. That is not always easy to do. Pointing out poor behavior and administering negative consequences are unpleasant tasks. However, by ignoring the situation, a supervisor is signaling that the problem is not serious. As a result, the problem gets worse. Seeing that the problem behavior leads to no consequences, an employee may increase it, and other employees may follow this example.

 In contrast, when Kathleen R. Tibbs was an in-flight supervisor with Eastern Airlines, she faced up to the unpleasant task of disciplining an employee with unacceptable attendance. Tibbs had the employee suspended for seven days. Her action inspired the employee to address the personal problems that led to her poor attendance.

 When discussing the problem with an employee, a supervisor should focus on learning about and resolving the issue at hand. This meeting is no time for namecalling or dredging up instances of past misbehavior. Nor is it generally useful for a supervisor to dwell on how patient or compassionate he or she has been. Instead, a supervisor should listen until he or she understands the problem and then begin discussing how to correct it in the future. Talking about behaviors instead of personalities helps the employee understand what is expected. For ideas on how to discuss problem behavior constructively, see the “Tips from the Firing Line” box.

 Asupervisor should keep emotions in check. Although it is appropriate to convey sincere concern about the problem, a supervisor’s other feelings are largely irrelevant and can even stand in the way of a constructive discussion. When an employee breaks the rules or seems unwilling to do a good job, it is only natural for a supervisor to feel angry. The supervisor should get control over this anger before confronting the employee in order to be objective rather than hostile. Being calm and relaxed when administering discipline tells an employee that the supervisor is confident of what he or she is doing.

 Discipline should be a private matter. The supervisor should not humiliate an employee by reprimanding the employee in front of other employees. Humiliation only breeds resentment and may actually increase problem behavior in the future.

 A supervisor also should be consistent in administering discipline. One way to do this is to follow the four steps of the discipline process outlined previously. Also, a supervisor should respond to all instances of misbehavior rather than, for example, ignore a long-standing employee’s misdeeds while punishing a newcomer. At the same time, the seriousness of the response should be related to the seriousness of the problem. The policy for workplace violence or drug use would likely be immediate dismissal because of the danger involved. Likewise, Stater Bros. Markets, a grocery store chain, has a policy of immediately dismissing any employee who engages in theft or sells liquor to a minor lacking proper identification. The response to an occasion of tardiness would be less severe. The point is to have and follow a consistent policy for serious and minor problems. Even better, consistency should extend to praising and rewarding positive performance. The guidelines for effective discipline are summarized in Figure 12.6.

Documentation of Disciplinary Action

Employees who receive discipline sometimes respond by filing a grievance or suing the employer. To be able to justify his or her actions, a supervisor must have a record of the disciplinary actions taken and the basis for the discipline. These records may be needed to show that the actions were not discriminatory or against company policy. As noted previously, one type of disciplinary record is a signed copy of any written warning. In addition, other disciplinary actions should be recorded in the employee’s personnel file, as directed by the human resources department.

 Supervisors often use past Performance Appraisals as documentation of the need for disciplinary action. However, this approach often backfires because many supervisors are reluctant to give negative evaluations. A performance appraisal that has an employee’s work recorded as average, adequate, or meeting only minimal standards does not support dismissal of that employee. This is why it is essential for the supervisor to give accurate performance appraisals.

 Documentation is especially important when a supervisor must terminate an employee. Because the experience is so emotional, some former employees respond with a lawsuit. The employee’s file should show the steps the supervisor took leading up to the termination and a record of the specific behaviors that led the supervisor to dismiss the employee.

 Careful documentation also is essential for organizations, which have many disciplinary rules and policies aimed at protecting employees from arbitrary or politically based actions by supervisors. These rules may have the unintended consequence of protecting problem employees from well-deserved discipline, unless the supervisor can fully document the problem behavior, preferably with witnesses. An example of just how challenging this process can be involves alleged abuses of residents at the Communities of Oakwood, a state-run home for mentally disabled persons. Of 15 employees charged with abuse in recent years, about half had previously received reprimands or suspensions for various misdeeds as severe as being intoxicated at work and changing patients’ prescriptions. Administrators at Oakwood must win the approval of a personnel board before they can dismiss such employees. This requirement protects the employees from being fired based on politics, but it also places a burden on supervisors to provide specific, supportable documentation of any problem behavior.



When employees engage in problem behavior, supervisors need to be able to discuss the situation in a way that leads to a solution. Generally, that includes some constructive criticism so the employee knows exactly what the supervisor is dissatisfied about. Here are some ideas for keeping your criticism constructive:

• Describe the behavior, not the person. Suppose an employee orders the wrong materials for a project. It won’t help matters if you say, “How could you be so careless?” Better: “Ordering the wrong material is expensive. Please enter the item numbers more carefully next time.”

• Be specific and accurate about the problem. A general comment like “Your work is sloppy” or “Your attitude is poor” is vague. What changes in behavior will correct these problems? Similarly, an exaggeration such as “You’re always late” gives the employee an opening to offer examples to the contrary, rather than focusing on the problem.

• Give reasons for criticizing. Following orders feels easier when we know the purpose behind the orders.

• Use a neutral tone of voice. If you are too upset to speak calmly, wait until you calm down (except in an emergency, of course). Calming down is just as important for criticism that you put into writing. If you are making a written record of an incident, the principles described here matter more because the comments are more permanent.

• Keep it short. No matter how carefully you express yourself, criticism is painful to hear, so people resist it. The less you say, the more likely you will be heard.

• Criticize in private. Praise in public.

Figure 12.5

Figure 12.6


Ideally, discipline should not only end problem behavior, it should also prevent problems from occurring. Discipline designed to prevent problem behavior from beginning is known as positive discipline, or preventive discipline. An important part of positive discipline is making sure employees know and understand the rules they must follow. A supervisor also should explain the consequences of violating rules. For example, a production supervisor might explain that company policy calls for the dismissal of any employee caught operating machinery while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

 A supervisor also can administer positive discipline by working to create the conditions under which employees are least likely to cause problems. Employees may engage in problem behavior when they feel frustrated. For example, if the organization sets a sales quota higher than salespeople think they can achieve, they may give up and goof off instead of trying their best. If computer operators complain that they need more frequent rest breaks to prevent health problems, and no changes are made, they may adopt a negative attitude toward the company’s apparent lack of concern for their well-being. This reaction is related to another source of problem behavior: feeling as if one is not an important part of the organization. If employees conclude that they and management are at odds, some may turn their energy toward seeing what they can get away with.

 To combat such problems, a supervisor needs to be aware of and responsive to employees’ needs and ideas. Asupervisor should encourage upward communication, promote teamwork, and encourage employees to participate in decision making and problem solving. The effective use of motivation techniques also helps prevent the frustration and alienation that can lead to problem behavior. Finally, through good hiring and training practices, a supervisor can help ensure that employee values, interests, and abilities are a good match with the job and the organization.

 At some companies, positive discipline includes a day off with pay for employees who fail to respond to efforts to educate them about following the rules and meeting performance standards. During this suspension, known as a decision-making leave, the employees are supposed to decide whether to return to work and meet standards or to stay away for good. If the employees choose to come back, they work with a supervisor to develop objectives and action plans for improvement.

 Finally, a supervisor should not only punish problem behavior but also reward desirable kinds of behavior, such as contributing to the department’s performance. For example, a supervisor should recognize those who make suggestions for improvements or resolve sticky problems.


An effective program of positive discipline results in self-discipline, in which employees voluntarily follow the rules and try to meet performance standards. Most people get satisfaction from doing a job well, so self-discipline should result when employees understand what is expected. Supervisors can help encourage self-discipline by communicating not only the rules and performance standards but also the reasons for those rules and standards.

 In addition, a supervisor who takes long lunch breaks or spends hours chatting with friends on the telephone or the Internet is in no position to insist that employees put in a full workday. If supervisors expect employees to follow the rules, they must set a good example by exercising self-discipline.


The first signs that a supervisor has a troubled employee tend to be the kinds of discipline problems described in this chapter. A supervisor may notice that an employee is frequently late or that the quality of an employee’s work has been slipping. If disciplinary action or counseling seems ineffective in resolving the problem, a supervisor may have a troubled employee.

 In the case of substance abuse, the supervisor might notice signs that the employee has been using alcohol or drugs. The examples listed in Table 12.1 are among the most common behavioral signs. (Note that these are only hints that the employee might be using drugs or alcohol. There may be other explanations for these behaviors.) Perhaps a supervisor will even find the employee in possession of drugs or alcohol. When an employee is suspected of drug use, some organizations have a policy of confirming the suspicion through the use of drug testing.

 Because there may be another explanation for symptoms that look like the effects of using alcohol or illicit drugs (for example, taking prescription medications), a supervisor should avoid making accusations about what he or she believes is going on. Thus, a supervisor should not say, “I see you’ve been drinking on the job.” Instead, the supervisor should focus on job performance: “I see something is hurting the quality of your work this week. Let’s talk about what the problem is and how to solve it.”




“Bully” is the label we place on people who routinely intimidate others. On the school playground, a bully was likely to beat up smaller children, especially those without a large circle of friends for support. In the workplace, a bully might establish control through sarcasm, threats, and verbal humiliation.

 Supervisors cannot afford to tolerate bullying behavior. A bully makes the workplace uncomfortable for valued workers and shifts the focus from team goals to his or her own status. Organizations that allow bullying behavior are likely to experience high employee turnover and low productivity; they may even be sued by unhappy employees.

 Management consultant Constance Dierickx recommends that a supervisor who wants to cope with a bully use the following actions:

• Define the problem behavior in a discussion with the bullying employee. Some supervisors might be tempted to analyze why the bully is behaving in negative ways or categorize behavior as “arrogant” or “mean.” The supervisor’s statements should, however, present only the observable, measurable facts, such as use of sarcasm or public criticism. When Dierickx had a co-worker who engaged in emotional outbursts, she calmly told that person she would not talk with him when he raised his voice, called her names, turned red in the face, and pounded his desk.

• Get help. If you are uncomfortable about discussing the problem with the employee, go to the human resources department. Make sure your boss also knows you are working on this problem. Keep written records of the behaviors you observe and the actions you have taken.

• If the employee will not abandon the bullying behavior, you may need to terminate the person’s employment. Be sure all such actions are based on observable behaviors, and work with the human resources department to follow company procedures.

 The supervisor’s refusal to tolerate bullying sends a message to the entire work group about what behavior is acceptable. In this way, the supervisor helps create a positive work environment for everyone.

Table 12.1


Ignoring a problem does not make it go away. Thus, hoping an alcoholic employee will seek help rarely works. It only helps the employee maintain the illusion that the substance abuse is not causing significant problems. After all, if the boss does not complain, how bad can the work be? Therefore, when a supervisor suspects a problem, he or she needs to confront the employee.

 The first step is to document the problem. A supervisor should keep notes of instances in which an employee’s performance is not acceptable. When collecting this information, a supervisor should be sure to keep notes on all employees whose performance is slipping, not just the one person targeted.

 When a supervisor has gathered enough supporting evidence, he or she should confront the employee. The supervisor should go over the employee’s performance, describing the evidence of a problem. Then the supervisor should refer the employee to a source of counseling or other help by saying something like, “I think something’s troubling you, and I want you to see an employee assistance counselor.” Finally, the supervisor should explain the consequences of not changing. In some cases, accepting help may be a requirement for keeping the job. Thus, the supervisor might say, “There’s no shame in getting help, and we’ll keep it private. But you are responsible for doing your job safely and up to standards. If you don’t, I’ll have to follow our disciplinary procedures for unacceptable performance.” Experts agree that this type of warning from a supervisor can be one of the most effective ways to motivate a substance-abusing employee to get help.

 During the confrontation, the employee may become angry or defensive. This reaction is common in such situations, so the supervisor should not take it personally or overreact. The employee also may come up with excuses that sound particularly sad and compelling. In any case, the supervisor must continue to focus on the employee’s behavior on the job and the way the employee’s behavior affects the organization. No matter how outraged the employee or how impressive or creative the excuse, the employee’s behavior must improve.

 Some caution is advisable, however. Supervisors should avoid taking on the role of doctor, counselor, or police officer. That means the supervisor must not try to diagnose what may be medical or psychological problems. Supervisors also should protect their employees’ privacy and give employees a fair chance to respond to any complaints. Also, if the workplace is governed by a union contract, the supervisor must follow its requirements. By focusing on objective measures of job requirements and performance, the supervisor can avoid falling into traps such as pitying employees, covering up for them, or allowing the workplace to become unfair or unsafe because the supervisor is reluctant to confront problems.


Most organizations have developed procedures for providing help to troubled employees. When a supervisor believes that problems are occurring because an employee is troubled, the organization’s procedures need to be investigated. In most cases, the place to start is with the human resources department.

 The type of treatment program tends to depend on the size of the organization. Many small organizations refer troubled employees to a counseling service.Another policy is simply to tell the employee to get help or lose the job. A supervisor should be careful in pursuing the latter approach. If possible, the ultimate objective should be the employee’s rehabilitation, not dismissal. Not only is rehabilitation more compassionate, but it also tends to be less costly than hiring and training a new employee, and it is less likely to violate laws prohibiting employment discrimination.

 Other organizations, especially large ones, offer an employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP is a company-based program for providing counseling and related help to employees whose personal problems affect their performance. It may be simply a referral service, or it may be fully staffed with social workers, psychologists, nurses, career counselors, financial advisers, and other professionals. These programs are voluntary (employees do not have to participate unless they want to) and confidential (participation is a private matter). Services of EAPs include recovery from substance abuse, financial and career counseling, referrals for Child care and elder care, AIDS education and counseling, and helping employees work with others of a different cultural background. Figure 12.7 identifies benefits that organizations have experienced as a result of using EAPs. A supervisor who is concerned about troubled employees might investigate such benefits and encourage the organization to consider offering an EAP. Some employees would be unlikely to seek out help without the push of a referral from their supervisor.

 The reason for providing EAPs and other sources of counseling is to improve the employee’s performance. It is up to the supervisor to see that the treatment plan is producing the desired results at the workplace. Any signs of improvement not related to performance (for example, abstinence from alcohol) are irrelevant from the supervisor’s point of view.

Figure 12.7