Human Resources Questions for Dentists: How to properly discipline an employee’s performance

This dentist is not happy with an employee's job performance. He needs to discipline her, but he wants to make sure he follows proper protocol and correctly shares his message.

Talking With Employee

The human resources landscape is constantly changing. Dentists have ongoing questions about how to handle staff issues. These HR experts are here to help.

QUESTION: One of my employees is not doing her job very well, and I need to address it with her. In the past when this has happened, I’ve written up an employee, which is my plan with her. I don’t feel very confident in my skills with writing the counseling form. Could you give me some tips?

ANSWER: As you suggest, written warnings are meant to help document employee behavior or performance problems, but if a written warning falls short, it will not be helpful. Here are some guidelines for you to consider: 

 Be specific about the offending conduct. For both the manager's and employee's benefit, include details about what exactly happened to lead to the warning.

 Provide the real reason for the warning, not a reason that sounds better. For example, an employer might say "personality fit" is the problem, rather than "threatened coworkers." The employee should know for certain what he or she did to lead to the warning.

 Connect the employee's conduct to the company's policies. 

 Describe the impact of a policy violation if the effect is readily ascertainable. For example, an employer may describe the financial loss due of an employee's actions. Employees should know how their actions affect their coworkers and the company as a whole.

• Avoid unneeded commentary. Keep the discussion focused on the specific wrongdoing. Bringing up other matters might make it hard for the employee to focus on what's important and what he or she needs to do to get back on track. Plus, extra commentary could expose employers to other legal problems depending on the nature of the comment(s).

 Avoid legal conclusions. For example, if an employee is facing discipline for violating the employer's antiharassment policy, identify the specific policy violation. Do not include generalized statements about the employee harassing or discriminating against other employees. Such statements could unnecessarily offend the employee and may not be true from a legal perspective. Policy violations do not necessarily mean there was a legal violation. 

 Don't attach supporting documents. Providing supporting documents in addition to the warning can be overkill. Don't make the interaction with the employee overly litigious.

 If there is a record of recent, prior warnings (verbal or written), mention them.  

 Follow through with the steps outlined in the warning, if applicable. For example, if the warning states that an employee will be terminated the next time he or she engages in a particular form of misconduct, the employer should follow through with this action, unless extraordinary circumstances dictate otherwise. Send the message that follow-through is expected throughout the organization from top to bottom.

 Give the employee the opportunity to provide a written response. If the employee does submit a response, it should be reviewed to see if any follow-up is needed. An example of this is the employee’s comments indicate that the performance issue is due to the employee's medical condition or a situation covered by family and medical leave laws.

 Ensure consistency. Employers should provide the same discipline for employees engaging in the same or similar conduct.

 While there is not one right way to write these documents, each should be done with care since it can eventually be used for or against you during a legal challenge. It’s great that you’re working to ensure that you manage this situation better in order to protect yourself.

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