Today’s employment environment is getting more difficult to navigate — government agencies are more aggressive and there is more uncertainty (think issues with social networking) and more overlap of laws and regulations (think about issues which involve medical leaves, accommodation requests, and privacy concerns). Two valuable strategies to minimize cost and risk are often underutilized: being patient and clear.

Often, calls into human resources or legal resources involve complaints from a supervisor with an ongoing problem and a frustration level which has hit the boiling point. Even though frustrating, especially for the supervisor or coworkers who are dealing with a continuing problem, the best strategy may be patience (apart from instances where patience is clearly uncalled for — such as safety concerns or outrageous conduct). Close behind patience is the need to be clear — and not just for the individuals involved, but clear to third parties (think jurors or an agency investigator) who may later be reviewing the “paper trail.”

Here are just a few practical pointers involving patience and clarity (but remember, employee counseling and discipline is not a “one-size-fits-all” exercise):

  • For written counseling or a performance improvement plan (PIP), make sure the time frame matches the underlying concern. If attendance or attitude is the issue, require immediate improvement. If the person is behind in a sales quota, make sure the time frame and associated goals can reasonably be achieved. It usually does not hurt to err on the side of being sure enough is provided.
  • If the PIP is for a specified time, be clear about whether termination can occur before that time period has expired. If there are interim goals, or interim evaluation periods involved, make sure the PIP is clear that termination can occur at any time. Otherwise, there may be an implicit expectation that the full time of the PIP can be used to accomplish the goals or necessary improvement.
  • Even if the employee seemed to understand things in a meeting, consider recapping the highlights in an email or document to the employee to confirm the expectations. Often, having a draft version of an email or document can help guide the meeting and the recap can then reflect the actual outcome.
  • Consider asking the employee if he/she has suggestions about what would help him/her improve — would retraining help or some periodic meetings to help better prioritize workload? When defending a claim, having allowed the employee to suggest solutions that were actually tried, or at least considered, can be very persuasive evidence.
  • If regular meetings are to be part of the PIP, be clear about who is to schedule or what preparation is needed. If the PIP does not specify those items, it leaves room for the employee to argue he or she did not understand the expectation.
  • Similarly, even when the documentation may support a termination decision, consider how one more step in the discipline process might look — both to the employee and to an outsider who reviews the situation with the benefit of hindsight.