How to discipline an employee?
October 30, 2008 7:22 PM   Subscribe

I need to discipline an employee for extreme tardiness, but I don't know how.

You see, my employee was two and a half hours late for her scheduled shift today. The day before, she told me that she may be up to a half hour late because of an appointment, and I told her that would be fine, but then she shows up two and a half hours late today, without calling.

Normally, I would just give it to her straight, and say something along the lines of "this is unacceptable behavior," but this is her first job, and she is very young, and very sensitive, and I think that in her mind, her telling me that she would be a half hour late is the same as telling me she would be two and half hours late. And I know she has never had a boss discipline her before. And I am used to working with people that have more professional experience than she does, and I know that they can handle criticism. I do not want to hurt her feelings because I do like her, and I don't want her to be frightened of me. I simply want to make sure that she understands why it is important to come to work on time without worrying that she will harbor ill feelings toward me for the rest of her tenure. Unfortunately, I am not known for being sensitive.

So, how would you gingerly tell someone that her behavior was unacceptable without making her think you are a jerk or overreacting?
posted by foxinthesnow to Human Relations (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You say she's young and without much professional experience, I say go easy on her.

Tell her that you're not upset because you understand that she wouldn't have been that late without a good reason, however, you would appreciate it in the future if she gave you a call just to let you know.

If she does it again, then you will have a discussion that is a bit the point.
posted by ThFullEffect at 7:26 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

This was the first time? Let it slide. She had an "appointment", which could have possibly prevented her from calling, and she knows she's not supposed to just be late, which is why she told you about it in the first place. The second time, that's when you bring it up.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:34 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

You don't say what the appointment was for, or if you even knew what it was. Whether or not the reason for her tardiness matters to you, it seems harsh to come down hard the first time just to prove a point and shock her into compliance. It is probably worth taking her aside privately, and communicate to her clearly that whatever happened the day before, you were not expecting her to be so late, and your reasonable expectation was that she would have the courtesy to call if she would be later. You can also explain to her the affect the nature of the lateness caused any other employees (did somebody have to pick up her slack? did you need the coverage during a busy time? etc) and that as a team, you depend upon everybody to be there on schedule to make things run properly.
posted by brain cloud at 7:38 PM on October 30, 2008

At my first job, when I was 16, I was reprimanded for this sort of thing (not tardiness, but similar in severity.) I must say that I was upset at the time, but I never forgot the lessons that I learned during that time period. I realize now that I didn't take my responsibilities seriously.

I say that you have a one-on-one chat with her explaining how being 2 hours late affects the team and the working environment and that it is unacceptable. Let her know that in the future, if unforseen circumstances prevent her from being on time, she must call as soon as she is possible.

Now this is the most important part. Finish the conversation by saying, "Now, on a positive note, I have noticed that...", and give her some positive feedback about her performance. It will be nice for her to not feel totally embarrassed and realize that you do like her, as you indicated in the question. Make sure you smile and are reassuring during this period. You will have gotten your message across, but she will still feel like a valued member of the team.
posted by ms.v. at 7:39 PM on October 30, 2008 [8 favorites]

Based on what you've said, it sounds like this is the first time it's happened. If that's the case, I wouldn't look at it as a cause for discipline, but an opportunity to act as mentor / educator.

Explain to her WHY she needs to keep you aware of when she's going to be at work and to let you know ASAP if she's going to be unexpectedly late. Don't let it slide, make sure she understands that it's a problem, but don't lead her to feel as though she's being punished.

The other thing to consider is that there may have been extenuating circumstances - she may not feel comfortable sharing personal details with you, but again -- emphasise the important of her keeping you informed.

If she does it again, then you can start travelling down the disciplinary path, but give her, yourself and her future bosses a break. You're her first boss, and the way you treat her is going to have an effect on the way she views all future bossses.
posted by cheaily at 7:41 PM on October 30, 2008

"So what was the hold up? [appropriate sympathetic noises] Just give us a call next time so we can be sure you haven't been in an accident or something!"
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:41 PM on October 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

You're being really nice, but you're not her babysitter.

"You told me half an hour, but you were two and a half hours late and didn't call to let me know. I need to know if you'll be late, or later than you said, so in the future, this can't happen. If it does, the consequence will be [whatever]." If she needs you to, you can have a conversation about your criticism of her work-behavior isn't a criticism of her as a person, but I think it's important to state your expectations explicitly. As long as you're not punishing her for a rule she didn't know about--you'll just be warning her about future consequences--she should be able to recognize that you're being both professional and (very) kind.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:43 PM on October 30, 2008

That said, you are certainly well within your rights as her manager to enact any reasonable discipline you think is necessary.
posted by cheaily at 7:43 PM on October 30, 2008

Don't think of it as "disciplining" or "criticizing" her. It isn't. You're just telling her what is and isn't okay, since she doesn't know. No need to be all stressy about it.

"Hey, I appreciate that you let me know you'd be late, but next time if you're going to be that much later than you expected, let me know, okay?"

On preview, turgid dahlia's got it.
posted by tangerine at 7:47 PM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

The words you are looking for are: "We'll let it slide this time but don't let it happen again, okay?"
posted by unSane at 8:13 PM on October 30, 2008

So, how would you gingerly tell someone that her behavior was unacceptable without making her think you are a jerk or overreacting?

Wow, I'm not entirely sure why you're worried about her thinking you're a jerk. Even if she is sensitive, you're her boss, not her friend, and you wouldn't be doing her any favors by approaching this gingerly. In the future, this type of tardiness could easily get her fired (I've worked retail jobs where this was certainly the case).

I'm not saying that you should chew her head off, but just tell her bluntly that it's unacceptable to be that late without calling, and that, in the future, she needs to contact you or that there will be consequences.

She might think you're a jerk for saying something, but that's okay. She's your employee, not your daughter or your friend.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:26 PM on October 30, 2008

Whatever you do, do something. Make your expectations clear and express your dissapointment. Doing nothing lowers the bar and will invite some amount of planning on your lenience. Plus, some people may find special treatment of women, because they're "sensitive", as offensively sexist.

On the other hand, you knew that she'd be somewhat late, and she did plan ahead. I'm not sure what you would have done differently if she HAD called. Paid someone else overtime? Called another part-timer in for an hour? Refused the request for time off? Just make it clear that it's not acceptable, there will be some specific repercussion if it happens again. And if it does happen again, follow through.

Most offices have something stronger than "telling it to her straight" in the category of discipline. If you don't know what that is as a manager, someone else is failing their job. For example, when I was a wage slave at the local MegaTheater, there were written warnings, and suspensions before total firings. Obviously it would be a bad time to review that progression with the employee during a verbal warning. But if you do have to escalate later on, I'd call that time to highlight whatever progression your employer has established.
posted by pwnguin at 8:31 PM on October 30, 2008

It's important to remember the words of Admiral Hopper, "You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people." Nearly always, if a subordinate doesn't do what you want it's because you haven't clearly expressed your expectation to them. Especially in a first-time case, there's no need to "pull rank" and risk looking like a jerk. Just ask what happened and explain what your expectation is.

I recommend the book Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach to anybody who hasn't had leadership training, and some people who have. While its main focus is on military leadership, the principles are the same in any situation where you must lead people.

On preview, turgid dahlia , tangerine, and unSane are on the right track.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:40 PM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Based on what you've said, it sounds like this is the first time it's happened. If that's the case, I wouldn't look at it as a cause for discipline, but an opportunity to act as mentor / educator.

I'd like to second cheaily's advice. I assume that even verbal warnings that are All Official are somehow documented. Don't do that. Just talk to her. She is likely oblivious to what she has done for whatever reason--inexperience, naivete. Explain your expectations to her, explain why it is important, and make it clear that you have all the confidence in the world that she will not make the same mistake again. Be a mentor.

The "she's your employee, not your daughter or your friend" approach has a lot to offer, and you may want to take this opportunity to help her understand the boundaries and expectations that exist in a workplace, but I'm guessing she grew up in a world where every kid was a special little snowflake, and many people didn't have any real responsibility until they graduated college. Being explicit but sensitive may pay many more dividends than going all drill-seargenty on her.

For what its worth, I think considering where your employees are coming from while also not allowing them to walk all over you makes you a good boss. Don't let anyone tell you different.
posted by Nonce at 8:43 PM on October 30, 2008

Well, I see you're concerned about hurting her feelings because you're worried she can't handle it, you shouldn't be - presumably if she's old enough to have a job, she's old enough to deal with the consequences of going outside bounds, and as her manager it's your job to send the boundaries.

But I think I've been the young and overly sensitive person, and still am. If my manager couched it in terms of personal concern - "Hey, I noticed you were late two days in a row, once very much so without calling us. Is there something affecting your schedule/performance/work that I can help you work around?" - I wouldn't be intimidated by her in the future at all. If you're worried that she can't read between the lines, or she says no, you can follow it up with a "Well, then I trust that you'll show up on time from now on." That ought to get the message across without the poor results that you're concerned about.

But seriously, don't treat her like she's your close friend. She's got friends already. She needs a boss.
posted by universal_qlc at 8:55 PM on October 30, 2008

"Hi Jane, let's talk for a minute in my office."

Relocate to your office.

Say this part matter-of-factly:

"Jane. I expect you to be here on time, and to call if you're going to be late. We need you to be here on time. We're relying on you to be here, and when you don't show up, you affect everyone--we don't know what's going on, we don't know if deadlines are going to be compromised, if workloads need to be rearranged, we don't know if client meetings need to be rescheduled, and so on. It affects the whole team, so we need you to be here, on time, when you say you're going to be here."

Now relax a little, and say this a little more gently, like, "It's simple!":

"If you're going to be late or you can't make it in, just call and let us know!"

Lean toward her and say this like you're telling her a secret or the inside scoop:

"Jane, I'm telling you this now, because as you continue in your career, your future bosses and clients aren't going to tolerate you coming in two and half hours late. They'll just fire you and hire someone who can show up on time. You need to change this, and change it now. You know what Woody Allen said? 'Eighty percent of success is just showing up'!"

Smile, and lean back. Say this part with a "we like you" tone:

"We need to be able to rely on you, and besides, we like having you around! We've got a sizeable investment in you, you're a a valuable and crucial member of our team, and we want you to succeed, but that won't happen if you don't show up. Okay?"

Stand up and walk toward the door.

"Thanks, Jane. Remember, just call if you're going to be more than ten minutes late. Let me know if there's anything you need, okay? You can always come in and talk to me."

Open door, let Jane out.

posted by mattdidthat at 9:00 PM on October 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

Start by asking her: "Can I give you some feedback?"

This is a good approach because feedback can be either positive or negative, and it doesn't immediately put people on the defensive.

Then, go into your spiel ... she might just need to be told what is acceptable in your particular office environment if she is young and inexperienced.
posted by Ostara at 9:24 PM on October 30, 2008

This is a conversation you should have right away when she comes in late. Something along the lines of "I know you said you had an appointment, but next time let me know if you are going to be here two hours after the time you told me." I believe in honest, immediate feedback.
posted by charlesv at 9:37 PM on October 30, 2008

/throws matt roses

that's good.
posted by now i'm piste at 9:41 PM on October 30, 2008

I disagree strongly with mattdidthat's idea. If someone gave me that speech at my first job I'd have been annoyed and insulted. It smacks of Office Space.

I think unSane and turgid dahlia's ideas would be the best choice.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:50 PM on October 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

When I was young and relatively irresponsible, I had a real job and a boss who I remember very fondly to this day. I'm a pretty sensitive person and would have taken harsh criticism very badly He used the following technique to reprimand me which was incredibly effective (for me at least, ymmyv).

Boss: Can I talk to you for a second?
Me: ah crap.
Boss: You're freaking awesome
Boss: (I have this little concern)
Boss: You're freaking awesome
Boss: joke joke joke / shoot the breeze

I swear he would keep me in his office until I was relaxed and laughing about something else. I was pretty much not allowed to leave despondent about my (deserved) chiding.

I understood the sandwich. I understood he had a concern with my behavior. And because I was sensitive, he didn't have to do a whole lot to make me worry about his concerns. But he never let me leave feeling let down or unhappy. It really helped. Honestly, I was always incredibly grateful for his sparing of my feelings.

You'll have some employees who don't care what you think of their behavior. You'll have some who care deeply, but still screw up. If your employee is like I was, she's not perfect but still doesn't want to disappoint you. A gentle reminder might be all it takes to help her understand the rules. Best of luck to you!
posted by FortyT-wo at 12:25 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

ms. v nailed it. be kind about it, end with praise, but do tell her that her behavior isn't acceptable for the workplace. You are doing her a favor, even if she is mortified and cries in the bathroom (as I did many times my first year as a professional worker). Ending with praise leaves her some dignity and lets her know that in general, you like her and think she's doing a good job.
posted by tk at 5:39 AM on October 31, 2008

The "she's your employee, not your daughter or your friend" approach has a lot to offer, and you may want to take this opportunity to help her understand the boundaries and expectations that exist in a workplace, but I'm guessing she grew up in a world where every kid was a special little snowflake, and many people didn't have any real responsibility until they graduated college. Being explicit but sensitive may pay many more dividends than going all drill-seargenty on her.

See, to me, clearly stating your expectations and the repercussions if she fails to meet those expectations isn't mean or jerky or drill sergeanty at all. It's actually extremely fair and reasonable to do so when you're in a position of authority. If expectations aren't clearly stated, or are couched in wishy-washiness, then, if you have to reprimand the employee for screwing up in the future, it's much more upsetting for the person, and justifiably so. I mean, how should they have known that this was a serious thing if you don't communicate that before it's a real problem?

This is why I recommended that foxinthesnow remind herself that she's a boss, and not a comrade. Because she's a boss, she might have to lay down authority even more clearly in the future--if she ever has to write up this employee for anything, for example. It's much more fair to be consistent and clear about that relationship. It doesn't mean she has to yell at the girl. Just state her expectations.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:24 AM on October 31, 2008

Everyone here has given really great advice. I would just like add something a friend taught me about teaching.

When giving feedback:
1st - postive
2nd - negative
3rd- postive or a question or suggestion on how to make it better.

It has a little drawing that I always remember +, -, +? It's like a sandwich.

It reminded me immediately of the feedback I got on my early university papers. "You have some really good ideas here, but the writing was not clear enough, spend more time organizing your thoughts in order to more effectively make your argument." As you can see I didn't get a second positive because I wasn't very good at writing. :(

But I like the technique because it reminds the person that they are valued and have potential. All negative feedback can discourage people and may not help them improve.
posted by Gor-ella at 7:08 AM on October 31, 2008

Please don't ever use the phrase "this is unacceptable behavior". I've been called out for tardiness at work (and rightly so), but this particular phrase makes every muscle in my body tense and daggers of hate shoot from my eyes. It makes me feel like I'm sixteen and listening to a lecture from my parents.
posted by Evangeline at 7:44 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Evangeline. My most recent boss, a CPA who watched every god damned penny that could have possibly slipped through his fingers let me go the exact moment that tax season ended. It felt like I had been dragged through hell and back, just to satisfy his ego and wallet., and he was extremely harsh when he disciplined me, and others., i.e., the employee I replaced who was regularly referred to as that douche bag, so-and so-. I did my fair share of bathroom crying as well. I do not recommend it as an effective method of discipline. He gave me that same line "This is unacceptable" more times than I can count, and each time it made me feel like a child, which is what I think he was going for. I have nothing positive to say about my time there, except that it impressed upon me how very much I need to avoid the same situation in the future.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 7:49 AM on October 31, 2008

Don't overthink it.
- Start by asking for information. Maybe it was a medical appt, and the doc was running really late. Maybe she had to go get a blood test. Maybe she's applying for another job, and the interview went long . Discovery
- Then explain that having a staff member missing causes problems, and describe the problems. Why it matters
- Finally, ask that she update you promptly if such a thing occurs again. Request desired behavior
- If it's persistent, inform her that it will affect her employment. Consequences

No matter her age, she has a job, and needs to understand how the world works. Treating her differently doesn't do her any favors.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

tell her that you appreciated her letting you know she might be late, but that next time if she's going to be significantly more late than she thought, she should call again to let you know.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:34 AM on October 31, 2008

Oh, god, let me second the hate of the phrase "this is unacceptable behavior." It makes the recipient feel like a naughty child, and I think that would end up emphasizing the parent-child thing instead of the employer-employee thing. And since she is so young, I think you'd be better off talking to her as you would an adult; if you treat her like a child, she'll act like a child.
posted by marginaliana at 9:14 AM on October 31, 2008

Thanks, all, for the advice. I know now how I will handle the situation.

I just wanted to respond to pwnguin's comment:

"Plus, some people may find special treatment of women, because they're "sensitive", as offensively sexist."

I didn't mean to imply that because she is a woman, she is sensitive. I have read my post over again, and I don't believe I ever alluded to that. She is just a sensitive person. She is the sort of person who sort of recounts all her interactions with people to me, analyzing them over and over, because she seems to think that people are being critical, when they are not. She just seems to be hyper-aware of what she thinks people think about her, and I would consider that to be sensitive behavior.

And, if it helps, I am a woman, and I can assure you that I have faced sexism against me in my career, and the last thing I would ever do is attribute sensitivity as being a "womanly" quality. That is not my style at all, and frankly, thoughts like that never cross my mind.
posted by foxinthesnow at 4:48 PM on October 31, 2008

First you need to decide if she is worth it.

If you feel you need her and you choose to work with her, make an agreement to talk with her a set number of times before you just fire her and move on. I have managed lots of teens, direct honesty works well. Away from other people, look her in the eye and tell that this isn't working for you. Tell her what she needs to do to make things work. Tell how many more times you are going to talk to her about this. I tend to favor the three times and then "let them go" and move on.

Good Luck and remember self absorbed young people rarely mean to offend you they just aren't aware of the results of their acts.
posted by RobGF at 6:27 PM on October 31, 2008

I didn't mean to imply that because she is a woman, she is sensitive. I have read my post over again, and I don't believe I ever alluded to that. She is just a sensitive person.

I'm not offended by the idea that this woman is sensitive, I'm just offering simple advice. It's kind of amusing to see your reaction mirror what you see in her ;) It's not about what you think, but those who work with and under you. Let me give a scenario explaining what I meant:

Imagine you have three employees working for you, two men and one woman, who you've judged as sensitive. Special treatment in that situation might be pure in intent, but foster resentment among peers, who may very well blame the special treatment on gender and call the personality trait "sensitive" code for gender. I certainly don't know many people who place 'sensitive' on the "manly" side of the scales.

Obviously I don't know the specifics of your management position, just a word of caution in the name of fairness. Equality is important, so make sure whatever action is taken is done in appropriate tone and style, but equal consequence.
posted by pwnguin at 8:04 PM on November 1, 2008

mattdidthat said it perfectly, and I suppose you agree. I'd just ask: is it obvious that her absence was a problem? Was it really a problem for that extra hour she was late? Maybe she didn't say anything about it because she knew that her absence wouldn't screw things up. If she just needed to be around in a warm-body kind of way, but not actually doing anything specific, then I'd go easy on her, perhaps ignore it altogether until it happens again.

If her absence did screw things up, then simply--very simply--point out what went wrong.
posted by zardoz at 4:47 AM on November 2, 2008

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