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How to Write a Disciplinary Action

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Administering disciplinary action is part of a supervisor's or manager's job that can cause friction between staff and leadership. If that's in your job description, know the circumstances and background before you write something that could further weaken the employer-employee relationship. Writing a disciplinary action document begins with checking your company's rules and determining the appropriate time to counsel the employee. Use the proper format and type of guidance to administer discipline so as to preserve your working relationship and return to a productive work environment.

Consult Human Resources

Before you put pen to paper, sit down with your human resources staff to revisit the disciplinary review process that the company has in place. Your employer may have a process concerning who has authority to write and administer disciplinary and counseling reports. For example, some employers give supervisors authority to recommend disciplinary action, but only managers can actually prepare the documentation, meet with the employee and require that the employee take steps to improve his performance.

Don't Waste Time

Disciplinary action should be swift. Don't let days or weeks go by without addressing problems related to workplace behavior or performance. Be an effective leader who recognizes problems early while they're still easy to resolve. Therefore, act quickly -- though not hastily -- to gather your thoughts and observations. For instance, if you witness an employee who is clearly violating a safety rule, you must address that immediately because ignoring it could put the employee and other workers in harm's way. On the other hand, if your employee arrives several minutes late one or two days, you needn't write a disciplinary report for tardiness. Determine whether there's a pattern of absenteeism and poor attendance before you jump the gun and write up the employee. But even in this case, if you notice the employee is late a couple of times, remind him that it's important to notify his supervisor or manager that he is running late because punctuality and dependability are traits that strengthen working relationships.

Just the Facts

When you're writing the disciplinary review form, refrain from using statements that sound too much like opinions or personal interpretations about the employee's behavior or performance. Check your workplace guidelines or employee handbook to cite the precise rule the employee violated. If the disciplinary action isn't for a specific violation of workplace policies, substantiate it with concrete evidence of poor performance. Include references to past performance evaluations or earlier disciplinary actions for the same infraction. And certainly avoid making any judgments about the employee's character or non-work-related competency, such as, "Sue just doesn't appear to know how and when to use common sense."

Behind Closed Doors

If you believe this is going to become a particularly contentious disciplinary meeting, invite someone from the HR department or another manager to join the conversation. Football great Vince Lombardi's wisdom -- praise publicly, criticize privately -- is excellent advice for supervisors and managers who administer disciplinary action. Never issue a verbal or written disciplinary warning at the employee's workstation. It's demeaning and humiliating. Reserve a conference room to conduct a private meeting or invite the employee to your office. Once you deliver the document, give the employee a copy, ask him to sign it and schedule a follow-up to monitor future performance or measure progress. Remind the employee that you're his supervisor and, therefore, accessible for guidance or tools to help him become a successful and productive employee. Wrap up your meeting on a positive note.


Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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