The dangers of disciplining employees before you know them.

“Consider this email your verbal warning.”

As comical as this may sound – after all how can a verbal warning be delivered by email? – this line is taken from an actual disciplinary email I came across recently sent to an employee by their manager.

The situation was that the employee had made an error when carrying out a core operational task that requires completion several times a day. This particular task is carried out manually – with a clipboard and a pen –  and therefore it is well known throughout the business that the window for human error is considerable.

The employee in question had been with the company for over 3 years, and during that time had made only one other error of this kind. Basically, they were a star employee.

While nobody is doubting that an error was made, and we all need to front up to our mistakes, what is concerning is the way in which the manager went about dealing with the situation.

The employee had never actually met this manager, despite an official reporting line being in place for several months. This email was the very first direct communication they had received from them.

The email went on to state the importance of this particular task, and how it must be carried out correctly. It was attached with a copy of official instructions and ended with the line “If this happens again in the next 3 months, you will be subject to disciplinary action.”

Once again, this was an experienced employee that knew the job well, was well respected, and simply made an adding up error.

As you can imagine, they now felt unappreciated, demotivated, and basically like they’d been kicked in the guts.

They even told me that for the next 3 months, they plan on palming this task off to their colleagues to avoid running the risk of making another error and facing disciplinary action. They also weren’t holding back in their opinion of this manager.

Just how motivated do you think this employee is going to be when one day their manager comes along and asks them for a favour?

Now, think about it if the manager had first learned a little about this employee, assessed the situation for what it is, and then had a frank and open discussion with them. Their office was located less than 100m from the employees’ work location after all, and it would have only taken a few minutes out of their day.

I can tell you now that it would have been a very different outcome. The employee would be happier and more productive, and as any good manager knows, a team of full of engaged, motivated and happy people equates to plenty of success for the manager.

So, to any managers out there, just think about this next time you feel the need to discipline an employee. 

Don’t ever forget, we’re dealing with human beings after all.


Author: Cameron McIver

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