Many a chiropractor has suffered through the agony of deciding when it’s time to start a progressive discipline program for an employee who is a mediocre or inadequate performer. The fear is that once you start down the discipline path, there is no return and the employee is doomed. The process is easier than you may think; but it’s important to fully understand the progressive discipline process (PDP) and to set decision criteria up front, which are then applied equally to all employees.
Progressive discipline processes help insulate companies from lawsuits by establishing a standardized process which, if adhered to by management, helps eliminate any sense of favoritism or prejudice. From a managerial standpoint, PDP removes the personal stress of being the “bad person.” If an employee is informed of her inadequate performance and chooses to continue the behavior, the employee ultimately fires herself. The manager is freed of sole responsibility for the decision.
As a manager, you want every employee to succeed, often because you were the one who hired the employee in the first place. If the employee fails, you may feel you made a bad hiring decision. Let’s dispel this first myth right away. You can make the best employee choice in the world, yet through a variety of reasons totally out of your control, an employee may still fail to perform. This myth is usually the reason a manager spends far too much time coaching a failing employee instead of starting PDP. You just have to forgive yourself and move on.
So how do you know when to move from coaching to discipline? The answer isn’t that simple, because myth number two is that PDP is a one-way street. Often an employee is awakened by the first discipline steps and her performance improves. You must be ready to return to coaching in these cases.
Exceptions to the Rules
You need to keep in mind two exceptions to PDP: union employees and grossly flagrant behavior. Although unionization is not very common in the chiropractic profession, you should be aware that union workers usually answer to a strictly defined disciplinary process that is negotiated at the time a contract is signed. Any discipline of a union employee must adhere to the contractual rules, or the manager and company are open to potential fines or a strike.
Some behaviors in the workplace are so flagrant, when they occur there is no need to go through PDP. For example, an employee caught selling drugs, bringing a gun in and threatening someone, or stealing money are grounds for immediate dismissal without PDP. For lesser offenses or lapses in performance, you must use your discretion in deciding when to begin PDP.
The Rule of Two
When dealing with employees, there is room for one specific mistake, but rarely an excuse for repeating the same one. While learning a job or attempting something new, employees will make mistakes that you as a manager should explain and help correct. But once that step is taken and the employee understands the situation, there’s no reason for the employee to repeat the error.
Remember that PDP is a two-way street, which means you can start down the road and come right back. I recommend starting PDP with the second mistake. Keep in mind the old saying, “One time, shame on you; two times, shame on me.”
As a manager you should sit down and develop a matrix of the mistakes and infractions that could occur on the job, and assign each a level of severity you are willing to accept. For instance, a simple error in judgment that has little or no effect on the practice may be excusable several times before being counted against the worker.
However, an error in judgment that endangers a patient’s safety or leaves your practice open to regulatory discipline cannot be excused more than once. When this matrix is completed and put in writing, you have a tool you can consult to determine when the Rule of Two should come into play.
The Heave Ho Thumb
Hold your right hand in front of you with your palm toward you and your fingers extended. Your hand serves as a physical key to PDP. Using the Severity Matrix and the Rule of Two, you are faced with an employee who has crossed the line and you must start PDP. When the second mistake occurs, you perform a verbal warning and fold your pinkie into your palm. If the behavior or errors continue, you perform a first written warning and retract your ring finger into your palm. The next repeat of the behavior or error warrants a second written warning and you pull in your middle finger. With the fourth repetition, you do a final written warning and retract your index finger. With the next offense, all that remains is the Heave Ho Thumb, and the employee has just fired herself.
The trick in coaching and discipline is to constantly evaluate the performance of your employees, good and bad. Praise and reward the good behaviors so you will reinforce them, but also be ready to immediately provide feedback on inappropriate behavior so you will get less of it.
Remember that PDP is not a bottomless pit without the possibility of redemption. Often, a competent and loyal staff member became that way because a manager delivered a wake-up call and made it clear the employee needed to improve.