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Issue: 73 - Jan 15, 2015
Dissection of Discipline
By: Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR
interFace Veterinary HR System

One of the least favorite duties of human resources management involves disciplining an employee, especially if the discipline has now reached termination.  There is a phrase, something to the effect that you do not fire an employee, THEY fire themselves.  That is true, to an extent.  First you need to be able to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and make sure that you did everything you could to help that employee succeed.  Here is how to get started.

1.  Explaining the Position:  When a candidate accepts an offer of employment, they are agreeing to do whatever duties are involved in that position.  How are you explaining what those duties are, and what that position entails?  The best case scenario, you are showing them a job description that lays out the essential duties, along with a lot of other important things.  When you have presented this job description, and the candidate has agreed and accepts the offer, then you both have a clear understanding of what is expected from their performance.

2.  Explaining the Policies:  The Employee Handbook or Policy Manual is where the rules of the practice are spelled out.  It is not enough to hand over or provide a link to this document and accept that the new employee has read AND understands all the policies explained.  Instead, during orientation, the most important or most commonly misunderstood policies should be discussed in more detail.  The new employee should also be encouraged to seek answers to any questions or misunderstandings on the policies, and in fact a statement to this effect should be included on the signature page of the manual.

3.  Training for the Job:  One way or another, a new employee must learn the ropes.  The best case scenario, you have a training program that is laid out according to what needs to be learned first, and how this learning will be documented and demonstrated.  There are many more aspects to consider, such as who should do the training, what is the agreed upon method for doing each task, what various ways to provide information and demonstrate skills, and how you know when an employee has been successfully trained.  In the absence of a training program, the method most often used is the “Parachute” method, where the new employee is simply dropped into the fray, and tries to learn as best they can as everyone handles their full load plus more (after all, that is why they were hiring).  Even if this is the best you can do at this time, at the very least establish an outline of what needs to be learned in order of importance, and this list can easily be pulled straight off the job description.  Then have some way to document that the employee successfully learned each step, and move forward.

4.  Coaching was Consistent:  As the new employee gets started, they should be encouraged when they do something right, and corrected when they do something wrong.  This should not wait until the end of the day, the end of the week, OR the next evaluation meeting.  Prompt, thorough, and compassionate coaching involves on-the-spot communication with the new employee as they adapt to your practice.  Overreaction in the positive direction may lead to a false sense of security for the new employee, yet overreaction in the negative direction can lead to the new employee avoiding certain tasks, not saying they need additional help, or not admitting to making a mistake.  Coaching is a delicate process, and is a time when the new employee needs emotional support as well as training, by the entire practice team.

5.  Discipline is Documented:  Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try at all the steps above, things simply do not work out at times.  There are certain reasons why an employee should be terminated on the spot, immediately, and those would include violence in the workplace, abuse or neglect of a patient, theft, and others.  Yet typically the indiscretion involves something that needs a step-by-step process of discipline, and the hope for rehabilitation.  This is when a verbal warning, written warning, and ultimately termination process is favored.  At each step, there should be documentation of what came before (were there previous warnings on record?) and what will come after (will they be terminated the next time it happens?).  Whatever you determine is your discipline process, it needs to be followed consistently, including application to the “best” employees when they go astray.

6.  Termination is Timely:  Either immediately following a grievous act (i.e., theft, abuse), or after being issue a final warning, the employee needs to be promptly terminated.  Waiting will only cloud the issue, and add to the anticipation of the event for both parties.  Termination should not be a surprise to the employee; they should have known this would be the next step regardless.  When it is a surprise, not only have you failed to follow the suggested process, but you have also created a situation which will cause emotional fallout, leaded to either angry or despair in the terminated employee.  For both of you, the employee and the manager, it should be stressed that this just may not be the right “fit” for the practice and the person.  Sometimes, what seems to start with a perfect fit, erodes over time and there is no longer a benefit to either the employee or the practice.

When you can look at all of these steps, and know that you have done your best to deliver on your end of the bargain, then you can look at yourself in the mirror and know that you have done the right thing for both of you, the employee and the practice.