Many years ago, I ran a fledgling payroll company. As many of you know, the IRS is very strict on how things are filed and paid. One day, one of my primary payroll processors came into my office and boldly declared that they had not filed or paid payroll taxes on our largest client for the past three months. Needless to say, I was in shock as this client comprised the bulk of their workload and we have been faithfully collecting the funds from them for years. As a believer in providing a high quality service, this news was devastating and heart wrenching, not including the potential financial loss.

Thankfully, these types of devastating mistakes don’t happen that often, but what do you do when an employee drops the ball? It is easy to point out behavioral issues such as showing up late, but when it comes to work performance, the job of disciplining tends to get less clear. How do you handle these challenging situations?

The first step is familiarizing yourself with the process. There are so many aspects to the disciplinary process, including not only becoming acquainted with the typical 3 steps (verbal warning, written warning, and termination), but also with the preventative measures necessary to ensure that you don’t have to go the route of formal disciplinary action. I highly recommend every manger review on a regular basis (depending on the position, every one to three months) each employee’s job duties, expectations, and performance. Take the time to talk with your employees about the challenges they face in reaching your expectations.

Second, in the event an employee does fail to meet the expectations you have laid out for them, take a moment to reflect. During your reflection, review your notes and your memory to ensure that you clearly communicated those expectations. In some cases it’s easy, like the employee not paying payroll taxes, and in others it’s less clear. Verify with the employee that they understood those expectations. Did the employee take responsibility for the mistake or lack of performance, or are they at a loss on how to fix the issue and prevent it in the future?

Lastly, make sure that you are documenting your conversations (however informal) with your employee. This documentation is an absolutely critical component in the disciplinary process to ensure that there is a clear understanding between you and the employee. Make sure that you do your investigations thoroughly and act fast in your meetings and documentation with your employee.

Take a breath, hang in there and remember that very few things are irreparable. Read along next week as we take our discussion one step further and talk about what NOT to do when you’re faced with the need to discipline a problem employee.