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Warning or Fire: A Fine Line

By Beth Hales,


If you’ve been a manager for any length of time, chances are you’ve had to face situations that call for disciplinary action. Unfortunately, there’s no step-by-step playbook for what to do when unhealthy behavior starts to surface, as people are unique individuals, and every situation seems to have its own complexities. Begin the process of handling tricky conversations by attending the webinar, Difficult but Necessary: Having Key Conversations, on December 7. Then there are, however, a few important considerations to keep in mind as you navigate.

When it comes to deciding whether the actions of the employee call for warning or fire, the severity of the offense matters. Immediate termination would be appropriate if the employee has acted in an unethical manner. Examples of this would include things like stealing money, falsifying reports, abusing an expense account, etc. Other situations aren’t so black and white. Things like underperformance, negative attitudes/behavior, or not following certain safety protocols can describe almost anyone when they’re having a bad day. It’s the repeated offenses that tend to start the downward spiral, which means it’s important to discuss concerns before they build up.

When faced with those situations that are grayer in nature, it is a good practice to incorporate some self-reflection as a manager. Ask yourself some key questions before you make any important decisions regarding next steps for disciplinary action, whether that may be warning or fire.

  1. Have the expectations for the employee’s behavior (or insert performance, attendance, etc. here) been clearly communicated both written and verbally?
  2. Has the employee been provided with clear/specific examples of where they are not aligning with expectations?
  3. Have you asked for their thoughts and perspective with regards to the issue? Do they have an idea that would be mutually beneficial in solving the issue?
  4. After clear communications have occurred, have you as their manager, followed up to discuss their progress in that area since?

It’s easy to get off track as a manager if you are not being a proactive communicator when the unwanted behavior first starts to surface. If you have not already done the things above as it relates to the issue at hand, then a good course of action would be to start there. The situation may warrant a formal warning, and if the employee’s behavior has become very concerning, then a formal warning may be what’s needed to get their attention. That warning should be in writing, and it should include set timelines for expected changes in behavior, as well as what to expect if the required changes are not achieved. At the end of the day, the company needs to thrive, and so do the employees…we continue to see the huge emphasis being placed on hiring the right talent in the first place. So, if you’ve hired the right people for the job, it’s probably a good move to make every effort to ensure great teamwork, retention, and personal success can happen through well-defined expectations and ongoing open communication. No one enjoys disciplinary action conversations, and that includes the managers that must initiate them. It’s always important to remember that each situation is an opportunity for the manager to keep learning and growing in their role too.

Register now for the Difficult but Necessary: Having Key Conversations webinar on December 7.