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Well-crafted worker discipline program diminishes risk


In today's litigious environment, business executives need to work closer with their risk management and human resources teams to create effective multilayered employee discipline programs that will reduce liability, improve morale and even save lives.

A well-designed employee discipline program can help mitigate both minor problems, such as an employee wearing inappropriate clothing, and major problems, such as an alcoholic employee whose duties require driving.

The following are elements of a successful employee discipline program:

Create an effective hiring process. Standardize job descriptions and applications to ensure only qualified candidates are considered. Personnel involved in hiring should be formally trained on effective interviewing techniques, and once candidates meet the initial criteria, conditional offers can be made. This allows an organization to check references, perform drug testing and check criminal or financial records before hiring.

Secure the support of administration. Get the buy-in of the organization's leadership. Supervisors who refuse to terminate or otherwise discipline rule violators will erode the validity of the system. Build support for the program by securing the input of senior management during the development phase.

Work with a labor attorney. Secure the advice and ongoing counsel of an attorney specializing in local labor law. The attorney should review every aspect of the proposed discipline program, and should advise on the wording of disciplinary documentation and the structure of an employee grievance process.

Publish an employee manual. This document will take time to create--sometimes as long as eight months in a union environment. But, it is worth the effort. Manuals should include policies on proper and improper attire, offensive behaviors, use of fleet vehicles, Internet and e-mail usage, and tardiness and absences. It should also outline the counseling, discipline and grievance processes. Once the manual is finalized, all employees should be required to provide written agreement to the terms outlined in the manual.

Train supervisors. Supervisors must understand all of the behavioral policies and disciplinary procedures because they will be on the front lines of explaining and enforcing the program. More importantly, management should be trained on coaching and counseling practices that are designed to help employees avoid running afoul of the discipline system.

Always begin with counseling. It may seem counterintuitive, but the goal of an employee discipline program should be to avoid disciplinary action. The purpose is to correct behaviors and fix small problems before they escalate. Most people respond well to an initial discussion and a definition of the conditions that would require further action. If the situation does progress, it should move to written acknowledgement of the verbal counseling.

Establish an employee evaluation process. Regular performance reviews are an important component of an employee discipline program, but are not the venue for bringing up new problems. There should be no surprises in an evaluation. As a rule of thumb, positives should outweigh negatives by 5-1.

Offer an employee assistance program. Frequently, discipline problems can be traced to extenuating circumstances such as alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues and family crises. Most health plans offer EAPs that can help employees get the support they need and prevent personal issues from spilling over into the work environment.

Standardize documentation. Create form letters that document when counseling has taken place and exactly what was discussed. This both accurately informs employees of an official offense, and defends the organization if an employee later alleges that he or she was unaware of their detrimental conduct.

Establish a grievance procedure. Employees may not always agree with a supervisor's version of events, and must be provided with a forum for disputing disciplinary actions. Consult with a labor attorney about systems that comply with state laws.

Effective employee discipline programs are often required to secure employment practices liability insurance coverage and other policies because they significantly reduce overall risk exposure. Additionally, organizations that correctly implement these programs actually end up with improved employee morale. As long as policies are clear and rules are consistently and fairly enforced, with an eye toward helping employees succeed within the program, companywide acceptance is assured.

Joseph C. Palermo is a technical director for the Public Sector Services, Oil & Gas and Financial and Professional Services business units of St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc.