The Right Way to Reprimand

Employees all make mistakes, but it's never fun to reprimand someone. Find out how to do it without ruining your relationships.

Some human relations experts consider reprimanding an employee a sign of failure. “It is something done to punish people, and punishment rarely works as a long-term strategy to change performance or behavior,” says Randy Pennington, a leadership consultant in Addison, Texas.

Well, yes. But when Ashley arrives late for the third time in two weeks or Bob gets into a shouting match with a customer, you can’t ignore it, either.

“I learned a long time ago that if you don’t enforce the standards of the workplace, you set a new standard,” says John Kramb, co-owner, with his wife, Katherine Bigler, of Adams County Winery near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

So how do you reprimand an employee if necessary?

Employment attorney Scott Behren of Behren Law Firm in Weston, Florida, suggests you start by having an employment manual that spells out your disciplinary procedure — preferably a classically “progressive” system in which the employee receives a series of warnings with instructions on how to correct the issue.

“I think most employees are willing to take constructive criticism when they are told clearly what they did wrong and are given an opportunity to fix it,” says Behren, who typically represents employees. “In my experience, most problems occur when the employee is not told what was done wrong, is not given a chance to fix the situation, and where the employer’s own policies are not followed or are not followed uniformly.”

Human resource professionals offer these additional tips:

Handle the matter privately. Few people respond well to public reprimand, says career management coach Bettina Seidman of Seidbet Associates in New York City. Deliver your message privately, and keep it confidential.

Act promptly, but calmly. You don’t want to overreact in the heat of the moment, or overlook important information. “Although behavior and performance issues should be addressed as soon as possible after the event, the manager needs to have all the facts and not jump to conclusions,” says HR consultant Penny Miller of Venture HRO LLC in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Don’t just talk, listen. “The employee may have a problem you can help him solve that will facilitate the behavior change,” notes Edward Navis, an HR consultant in Little Falls, New Jersey. “Alternately, there might be a very logical explanation for the problematic performance.”

Focus on actions or behaviors, not attitude. The issue isn’t what the employee thinks or feels, but whether his or her behavior is appropriate, Navis says. “Supervisors often tell the person they have a bad attitude or they are lazy,” agrees Miller. “This is an attack on the person and creates defensiveness.”

Be specific. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re always late,’” Miller advises, “say, ‘In the past week, you have been late twice. On Monday you were X minutes late and on Thursday you were Y minutes late.’”

Explain the standard and why it’s important. While it may seem like common sense to you, it’s important that employees know what’s expected of them and why. Example: “Your workday starts at 8 a.m. and I need you here on time. If you are late, there is no one to serve customers, which frustrates them and causes us to lose sales.”

Get a commitment from the employee to change. “Although you might think that once you are at this stage it’s too late for change,” Miller says, “the point of discipline is still to change behavior so you can avoid all of the hassle of terminating employment, hiring a replacement and training.”

Consider offering help. This may not apply in the case of, say, a tardiness problem, but it could make sense in other situations. “If the employee has high potential and/or a specialty expertise that would be hard to replace, you might want to offer to split the cost of a coach to help the individual make the behavior change,” says Leigh Steere, co-owner of management consulting firm Managing People Better LLC in Boulder, Colorado.

Don’t dilute the message. “Softening the impact of the reprimand by sandwiching it between two compliments, an old disciplinary tactic, is confusing and ill-advised,” Navis says. “You want the problematic performance or behavior to change, so the reprimand must have full impact.”

Document the conversation. “If the person does the same thing half a dozen times and you end up terminating him or her, then the documentation you’ve been collecting will help you defend against any potential litigation,” explains Ben Eubanks, a corporate HR specialist and blogger at Behren suggests having both employer and employee sign the document, and giving the employee an opportunity to set out a defense of his or her conduct.

Hold everyone to the same standard. “Otherwise,” says Navis, “an attorney can claim that you must have reprimanded this particular employee for a unique reason, like his membership in a protected class.”

Reprimanding employees is never going to be pleasant. But handled properly, it can be productive.