One of the most challenging aspects of school leadership is providing coaching or issuing discipline to employees. Not only are these situations unpleasant, managers are usually given little training on how to go about the coaching or disciplinary process.
Over the years I have developed a reliable style for approaching coaching and/or discipline of employees. While far from perfect, our process has received praise from legal firms and educator associations.
Below I have summarized some key ideas to keep in mind. This information is taught to our administrators and summarizes how we typically handle employee coaching and disciplinary situations.
These suggestions have been adapted from a helpful resource called FRISK, Fundamentals for Evaluators in Addressing Below-Standard Employee Performance. While many books provide guidance on addressing below-standard employee performance, I have found this resource to be especially relevant for school district use.
Let me be clear, these are simply my personal suggestions. By no means should the following be considered legal advice. When dealing with an employee issue I would recommend you first speak with human resources or consult with district legal counsel.
Two Type of Employee Files:
Personnel File: Typically a physical file found in your district's Human Resources department, the personnel file is the employee’s official work record. Significant employee concerns should be placed in this folder. Keeping documented paperwork in one location not only supports future decisions on employee discipline or dismissal, the file also becomes valuable when there is a change in leadership.
Working File: Typically an electronic file maintained by the employee's direct supervisor, the working file is used as a temporary holding file to archive coaching conversations as well as document minor employee violations. When the employee's performance or behavior warrants formal intervention or discipline, documentation should be moved from the working file to the personnel file.
Three Types of Conversations:
Coaching: Informal support focusing on professional growth for employees, coaching is meant to develop new skills, refine existing skills, and meet performance standards. The direct supervisor is responsible for mentoring and assisting the employee for the purpose of developing specific areas of improvement. Coaching documents should be placed in the employee's working file.
Awareness Phase and Verbal Warning: An elevated notice employee performance or behavior, the awareness phase and verbal warning are the second steps in terms of employee intervention. The awareness phase is the result of issues that have not been alleviated by coaching. The verbal warning is used to respond to issues with employee behavior. Both documents should be placed in the employee's working file.
Plan of Assistance and Written Warning: When an employee’s performance is non-responsive to prior coaching and conferencing or more serious in nature, the plan of assistance and written warning serve as formal interventions. The plan of assistance is an official acknowledgement of the employee’s substandard performance and notice of more serious consequences. The written warning is used to document severe employee misconduct. Both documents should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.
Documentation: The direct supervisor must be disciplined in documenting employee concerns. Too many evaluators do not commit time to summarize and record actions related to employee underperformance. As a result, school districts often lack evidence when it comes to implementing more formal plans of assistance and/or discipline. Keeping accurate documentation of employee underperformance is a vital role for leaders.
Annual Evaluation: Below-standard performance addressed in prior conversations that has not been corrected must be identified in the employee’s annual evaluation. The evaluation should reflect the complete picture of employee performance. In most cases, employees should not be surprised by a below-standard rating. All annual evaluations should be placed in the employee's personnel file.
Patterns: Supervisors must focus on patterns of underperformance as opposed to single events. Certainly, severe errors in judgement must be immediately addressed. However, in most cases supervisors should document a series of minor infractions before jumping to formalized intervention. The cumulative nature of the infractions provides the evidence needed to justify further intervention and/or discipline.
Signature: Does an employee need to sign a corrective document? There is no requirement that employees sign documents of reprimand. However, best practice would have employees sign and date these documents to establish a clear record of receipt. In event an employee refuses to sign the corrective document, the evaluator could write the following: “On (Date), I handed this document to (Employee) who refused to sign acknowledging receipt. (Evaluator Signature/Date)"
Dismissal Hearing: At a dismissal hearing, absent serious misconduct, management must establish the employee was provided multiple opportunities for coaching and did not respond to those interventions.
The district must show evidence the employee did not respond to multiple corrective measures to prove that the employee is likely to continue the same behavior in the future.
While there are several other important ideas to consider when it comes to employee coaching and discipline in the school setting, too much information overwhelms most leaders. Therefore, consider the basic ideas listed above in for day-to-day operations and when complicated situations arise consult with human resources or district legal counsel.