How to Handle Employee Discipline at a Small Company

Once you employ more than one or two workers, you’re likely to encounter the occasional discipline problem. From minor issues like people arriving late to bigger concerns that could result in severe consequences, you need to be consistent with how you approach discipline.

Small business managers or owners need to plan for how different scenarios will be handled. Ideally this means having an official policy detailed in an employee handbook. That may sound daunting, since many small business owners don’t have a background in human resources, and some smaller companies lack someone devoted to that task, but it’s not as hard as you think. A simple web search turns up a number of forms and templates you can use to draw up a basic document. That’s a start, but follow through with the next steps: communication and consistency.

A woman raises a finger as she speaks to a man.

Be consistent in how you apply your policies. Image source: Getty Images.

You have to be consistent

Being consistent across an employee base that has different needs is not easy. A full-time senior employee may have an easier time getting work for the start of their shift than a younger worker who relies on public transportation.

Establish a policy that allows for enforcing standards and discipline, but also covers potential exceptions. Perhaps you forgive tardiness if the employee texts or calls 15 minutes before their shift to explain what’s happening, or allow a certain number of late arrivals with no questions asked.

In general, you need to be consistent in how you apply any discipline, and when you deviate by letting someone off the hook or by being more harsh than usual, explain the extenuating circumstances to your whole staff. And with more serious penalties such as suspension or termination, it’s especially important to apply the rules to everyone equally.

An advantage of owning a small business is how easy it is to solicit opinions from your employees. Share a draft of your handbook, ask for feedback, and listen to what’s being said. If there’s an area where you don’t agree with the consensus opinion, acknowledge the difference of opinion and explain why you have chosen to go a different way.

When it’s time to punish someone

When it comes to discipline, it’s important to clearly convey what the offense was, and what the penalty is. After that, record what happened in the employee’s file, even if it’s only a verbal warning, because you may need to prove that step was taken before elevating to more serious consequences.

In all cases, meet with the worker who committed the transgression, explain the situation, and lay out the consequences. Allow them to defend themselves and then investigate if they offer extenuating circumstances, but ultimately, follow your policy and be direct.

A major challenge facing small business owners and managers is the intimacy shared by the small staff, which can make it tempting to let someone slide. But doing so creates a precedent and opportunity for other employees to ask for the same leniency.

Being the boss means having to make tough calls. That’s not fun at all when personal relationships are involved, but if you don’t stick to your own standards, it becomes hard if not impossible to enforce the rules.

Don’t use arbitrary standards or punish people for things beyond their control (like being late due to a major accident or flat tire). Do make sure your workers know what the rules are and understand how they will be enforced both by providing a handbook and by following through when an incident occurs.

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