Office Diaries

An insider's guide to success in the workplace

Managing Behavior With One Strike, You're Out

Why warnings don't work.

Corporate America has a bad habit. It tolerates, perpetuates and systemically ignores bad behavior by keeping problem employees around far longer than they should. Organizations are left then with disease among the ranks, festering there to infect the business and derail positive results. I came to this realization while in the midst of writing the performance management section of an employee handbook for a client when our attorney pointed out how illogical a process it was. Until then, the client had employed a fairly standard model commonly used to manage problem employees "out" that is often referred to as "30, 60, 90."

It went something like this:

Step 1: Communicate conditions of poor performance with the employee

  • Counsel, document and advise the employee of the next 30 day follow-up.

Step 2: Conduct first 30 day follow-up

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  • At 30 days, if performance has not improved, place employee on written warning and advise him/her that there will be another 30 day follow up.

Step 3: Conduct 60 day follow up

  • At 60 days, if performance has not improved place the employee on final warning and advise him/her that there will be another 30 day follow up.

Step 4: Conduct 90 day follow up

  • If performance has not improved, terminate employment, effective immediately.

The point is that if an individual's performance is going to improve, it shouldn't take a full quarter to find out. It's a waste of resources, misuse of time and certain to cause a loss in productivity and focus.

Alternatively, the system can be structured differently to give companies the information they need about an employee's ability to turn it around sooner rather than later. I would suggest something along these lines.

Step 1: Be explicitly clear about what the organizational expectations are.

Step 2: Be even clearer that the company has no intention of tolerating behaviors, conduct or breaches should they surface at any time down the road.

Step 3: Then, if an employee does violate company policy, inform him or her of the problem ONCE, and explain why it is in fact a problem. This is the warning and his/her chance to fix it. Make sure the employee knows that if it happens again, his or her employment with the company is over.

Step 4: And you wait. Hopefully they "get it" and don't want to lose their jobs, and the company never has to revisit the issue again, or watch them languish further through a laborious and inefficient process. The "problem" is eliminated and the company is clean of the people who bog the business down. It's quite straightforward actually. If we treat employees like children, we increase our chances that running a business will feel more like running a daycare center.

One thing to keep in mind however, is that if there is a legitimate performance issue that requires an employee to learn and master skills that he or she does not currently possess, this is not a behavioral problem. In this case, if there is a chance that development, or lack thereof, is the underlying cause, then it's better to coach and train then to threaten with disciplinary action. This gives both the organization and employee an opportunity to decide together whether the objectives of the job can be met. If it turns out not to be the right place for the employee, both parties can mutually agree to make a change.

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Donna Flagg is the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations and a New York City-based dancer.

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