How do I discipline someone for attitudinal behavior?

One of the most common challenges facing line managers today is dealing with employee attitude problems. It s the entitlement mentality evidenced by rolling eyeballs, sighs, and antagonistic body language that drives managers crazy. Still, trying to stop such ''silent'' behavior is difficult because it's so easily denied by employees.

There are two key points to keep in mind when attempting to eradicate this all-too-common problem: First, the manager should tell the person how he perceives her actions and how she makes him feel. Second, if formal written discipline becomes necessary, the manager should be sure to paint a picture with words so that the documentation clearly portrays the employee s attitudinal actions.

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Managers should avoid the word ''attitude'' when speaking with an employee or documenting progressive discipline. It s simply too subjective a word and typically escalates disagreement by fostering feelings of resentment and anger. As a matter of fact, courts have interpreted ''attitude problems as mere differences of opinion or personality conflicts. It is therefore critical that you avoid that specific term in any of your disciplinary documentation. Only behaviors and actions that can be observed and documented may be presented as evidence in court.

When attempting to fix a communication problem that exists with a staff member, approach the matter verbally first:

Richard, I need your help. You know they say that perception is reality until proven otherwise. I feel that you're either angry with me or angry with the rest of the group. I don't know if anything's bothering you or if you feel that I can be more supportive of you in any way, but please let me know if that's the case. Otherwise, though, understand that you make me feel embarrassed in front of other members of the staff when you roll your eyes upward and whine, ''Okay, I'll get it done.'' Do you feel it's inappropriate for me to ask you to complete your work on time? Should I even have to follow up with you, or should that be your responsibility? How would you feel if that were done to you as the supervisor?

If your verbal meeting doesn't work and the problem continues, you may need to document your concerns in a written warning. An example of a written warning for inappropriate workplace conduct is included in Appendix L.

Can employees be terminated for occurrences of inappropriate workplace conduct? Sure they can, and attitudinal problems that appear to be difficult to measure fall under the category of insubordination. Never assume, however, that a jury will relate to you, the supervisor, just because you documented that an employee had an ''attitude problem. The key lies in describing the employee s actions accurately so that the documentation remains clear enough to convince a jury that the company had cause to discipline or terminate.

What does it mean to fire 'for cause''?

The term ''cause, sometimes referred to as ''good cause or ''just cause, means that you, the employer, have a reason to terminate an employee. What reasons do employers typically have to terminate employees? Broadly speaking, the categories fall into one of four areas:

- Policy and procedure violations

- Substandard job performance

- Inappropriate workplace conduct

- Attendance/tardiness problems

See Question 75 for an explanation of these areas.

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What becomes important in the termination process is the discretion that you exercise as an employer. First and foremost, you should attempt, whenever possible, to document company rules and regulations so that employees are aware of your expectations. That s the role of employee handbooks and policy and procedure manuals.

Second, you must be consistent in the application of your own rules. Workers have the right to consistent and predictable employer responses when a rule is violated. In other words, problems cannot be corrected on an ad hoc basis without your being perceived as arbitrary or unreasonable. In addition, remember that when perceived unfairness occurs to a member of a protected group, a discrimination charge may be sustained.

Third, the discipline must be appropriate for the offense. Occasional poor performance or a minor transgression (known as a de minims infraction) is certainly actionable but probably not cause for termination. An employee s performance track record and prior disciplinary history should certainly be taken into account.

Fourth, remember that you have more discretion when dealing with conduct infractions than you do when dealing with performance or attendance problems. Conduct that is egregious may be grounds for immediate dismissal, otherwise known as a ''summary dismissal. The logic is simply this: If an employee engages in gross negligence or is caught using drugs on company premises, you ve probably got a clear shot at a quick and defensible termination.

On the other hand, courts and juries expect companies to provide the full span of progressive discipline to an employee who is having difficulty performing the duties of the job or who is excessively absent or tardy. The logic here? You hired him, so if he s not doing the job the right way, you should have been more diligent in the selection process. Now you're obligated to help the individual improve his performance to meet minimum company expectations. Ditto with the employees who suffer from excessive absenteeism or tardiness: They may be going through a difficult period in their lives, and the company is expected to exercise restraint before removing them from the job.

The steps that your company takes in providing progressive discipline that may ultimately result in a termination for cause are up to you: Most companies apply a three-step system that includes a verbal correction meeting, a written warning, and then a final written warning before termination. These steps are part of your written policies and past practices.

As a rule of thumb, follow the paradigm that you ve established unless doing so would make you, the employer, appear irresponsible. In other words, don t give employees three chances to steal, embezzle, or punch their bosses in the nose. Those, again, are conduct infractions, and no court or jury would expect a company to provide progressive discipline in such cases.

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