One of the more difficult aspects of being in a leadership position is providing coaching or issuing discipline to employees. Beyond the fact that these are not enjoyable experiences, 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. Below I have summarized some key ideas and processes to keep in mind. This information is taught to our administrators and summarizes how we typically handle employee coaching and disciplinary situations.
Let me be clear, these are simply my personal suggestions. By no means should the following be considered legal advice. Rather, if you are dealing with an employee issue in your district I would recommend you speak with your Human Resources department or consult with your 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, it 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 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, the 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, the goal of coaching is 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 conversations and interventions should be documented and 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. An awareness phase is the result of issue that have not been alleviated as a result of evaluator coaching. The verbal warning is used to respond to issues with employee behavior. Both the awareness phase and verbal warning should be documented and placed in the employee's working file.
Plan of Assistance and Written Warning: This formal intervention is commonly used when the employee’s performance is more serious or non-responsive to prior coaching and conferencing. 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 the plan of assistance and written warning must be documented and placed in the employee’s personnel file.
Documentation: The direct supervisor must be consistent in keeping documentation of all employee concerns. The evaluator must keep all records in a safe, confidential place. Too many evaluators get lazy with documentation and do not take time to summarize discussions of 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 is one of the most vital roles 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. This evaluation should reflect the complete picture of the employee’s 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: In a previous article, I spoke about how supervisors must focus on patterns of underperformance and inappropriate behavior as opposed to single events. Certainly, there will be times when an incident is egregious enough that no pattern is necessary. However, in most cases the supervisor should consider layers of documented minor infractions depicting a pattern of substandard performance. The cumulative nature of these infractions impacts the need for 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 that the employee was provided multiple opportunities for coaching and did not respond to those interventions. The fact that the employee did not respond to multiple corrective measures demonstrates that the employee is likely to continue the same behavior in the future.
Looking for an outstanding resource for navigating employee performance? Consider reading FRISK: Fundamentals for Evaluators in Addressing Below-Standard Employee Performance by Steven Andelson