what consequences can managers enforce instead of firing someone?

A reader writes:

I’m a new manager and I’m wondering about consequences. When an employee is not meeting expectations, you frequently mention that a manager should clearly explain the potential consequences if the issue is not fixed, up to and including letting the person go. What are those consequences prior to being fired? I’d like to get a better understanding of the kind of tools do I have as a manager to impose consequences.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 116 comments… read them below }

  1. Jenna Webster*

    I would say that the consequence that actually has had the most impact for me is that we have a conversation every time the problem behavior happens – a long conversation, where we talk about how the behavior is another example of what we’re trying to change, why it happened, how it might be avoided, followed specifically by the steps they will take to make sure it doesn’t, and the follow up conversations we’ll be having to see how things are going. And I mean having that same long conversation every single time, followed by check in conversations. Not only are these conversations directly related to resolving the problem, but people find them emotional and exhausting and often will do just about anything, including changing their behavior in order to avoid them.

    1. KHB*

      I agree (and Alison makes the same point at the end of her answer). And I’ll add that it may also help to talk about why the behavior is problematic – what are the problems it actually causes? “You missed a deadline, and that’s bad because missing deadlines is something you’re supposed to be working on stopping, and when you miss your deadlines you have to have an uncomfortable conversation with me about missing deadlines” can all get to be a bit self-referential. But “You missed a deadline, so Lucinda and Wakeen had to work overtime to get the timeline back on track” may help bring things into better focus.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        THIS! It’s not just about how the problematic behavior affects the worker in question, but about how it impacts the business as a whole.

        I’ve had a lot of bosses who always want employees to have “the 30,000 foot view” but never share it with them. This is one of the ways that you can do that.

        Thank you!

      2. robin*

        Also I bet having to think about *why* the behavior is a problem in order to relay it to the employee will also help one clarify if the behavior IS actually a problem, rather than something you just don’t like or feel challenges your authority somehow. A good habit all around to avoid becoming a shitty boss.

    2. anonymous73*

      I agree, but there needs to be a point where the conversations turn into a larger consequence outside of having the conversation. If you have to keep having the same conversation over and over without anything more relevant at stake, the conversations will become pointless.

  2. BlueBelle*

    We don’t punish employees, we develop their skills and focusing on outcomes and milestones to be reached. If those outcomes and milestones aren’t reached then yes termination of employment is the result. But between identifying the problem and the expected outcomes we need to develop them.

  3. Mike*

    This is exactly why companies need a prescribed performance improvement plan procedures in place for all employees. Bad performance can’t be treated differently from person to person. Discipline needs to be laid out ahead of time and agreed to by employees before it’s happening to them (via a plan they read and acknowledge when they’re hired/whenever it’s updated), and progressive steps need to be prescribed so that continuous bad performance can be dealt with appropriately and, if persistent, the employee can be let go. This type of procedure not only makes it easier to punish employees, but also is sound business management, should the terminated employee sue for wrongful termination or demand unemployment benefits.

    1. Xavier Desmond*

      I don’t agree with some of the language you have used. Consequences shouldn’t be about “discipline” or “punishment”. That seems needlessly adversarial.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        Agreed. I don’t want to work for a manager who views it as part of their job to punish employees.

        As a manager, I want all of my employees to become really good at their jobs and to grow. It’s hard for them to do that when they are constantly waiting for the hammer to fall.

        1. JustaTech*

          Exactly this. When you treat your employees (or a specific subset of employees) like children you’re never going to get the best out of them, you’re not going to foster a healthy work culture and you’re going to have a high turnover rate.

          That’s not to say you can’t have clear expectations of behavior. But it’s not about “discipline” or “punishment”.

    2. Elder Millennial*

      You seem to have an extremely adversarial attitude towards employees. Maybe that’s why you also expect *them* to sue or “demand” unemployment benefits. (Which, as far as I am aware, they can file for and then they are either entitled to or not. It’s not as if they can violently force a former employer to hand them out.)

      If you are in management, I would encourage you to keep reading this website, think about how you would handle a situation, then read Alison’s answer and reflect on the difference. Maybe you can see how having a more generous attitude towards people you manage is actually also beneficial to you and the company you represent.

      1. Bernice Clifton*

        I think from the context Mike was referring to needing to have documented procedures in place for discipline and termination, so an employee who is fired for cause won’t get rewarded. Example, Chandler and Ross have the same job on different teams. Chandler gets let go for tardiness after three written warnings and Ross gets lets a month later for tardiness. Ross says he was never warned that he could be terminated for being late, but Ross’s manger said he told him that, but he can’t produce a written warning or an email or anything.

    3. anonymous73*

      While I agree that a PIP procedure should be in place, it needs to be the last resort and not the first thing you jump to when someone does something wrong.

    4. Koalafied*

      I think it’s important to strike a balance between the need to be fair and equitable for all employees, and the value of giving managers a reasonable amount of discretion to tailor their response to the unique circumstances of the situation. That’s why we have human managers instead of an AI monitoring our metrics and doling out automated consequences according to its programming.

      Certainly manager discretion can be abused, and to guard against that you should both ensure that your policy isn’t leaving so much wiggle room that a manager can wiggle their way into doing whatever they want according to their whims, AND be paying attention to how managers are doing their jobs so that you notice if someone is behaving like a petty tyrant and treating team members inequitably (instead of only responding if one of the mistreated employees comes forward to report it).

      Other than that, allowing for some discretion is good. A competent manager will use that discretion to be fair (by recognizing that two situations that might seem the same on the surface/by the numbers are different in context/qualitatively), rather than to be unfair (by playing favorites).

    5. Curmudgeon in California*

      Umm, I want a job, not a place in a penal colony. If you handed me a big long “discipline” process doc in the first week, I’m going to have second and third thoughts about working for you. I’m not a child or a convict.

      Every place I work I assume has a formal process for handling employees who are egregiously problematic. I do not need my face ground into it before I even have a chance to make a mistake.

  4. AK*

    One good bit of advice I got as a manager – is it a “can’t do”, or a “won’t do”? “Can’t do” brings about a process for someone who is out of their depth for some reason, maybe health, a poor fit when hiring, or some kind of issue with their workload, expectations of the role, or the company structure that is setting them up to fail. “Won’t do” is more where the disciplinary action comes in. Good or bad faith would be another way of putting it.

    1. Bean Counter Extraordinaire*

      I like this framing! Especially in cases where, say, the employee is giving the work a good faith effort but isn’t able to work at the level needed. They aren’t deliberately flubbing up because they’re a horrible person, they’re making mistakes because it isn’t the right job for them. Nothing wrong with figuring that out (and employees shouldn’t be viewed poorly for that either).

      1. Ariaflame*

        Or because they haven’t been given the training and resources necessary for them to succeed, or the expectations they have been given to fulfill are not reasonable.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          We all know cases where employees are given tasks that are impossible in order to manage them out, whether for good reason or not.

  5. Lobsterman*

    If you have a union contract, it’s in the contract.

    If you don’t have a union contract, either the employee needs more training and resources or they don’t. If they need more training and resources, do that. If not, it’s either “more intrusive monitoring,” or “ok here’s your severance, good luck.”

    1. Loulou*

      In my experience, the union disciplinary measures tend to be more about the bigger stuff that could potentially lead to termination (so, the first part of the two scenarios that Alison describes). I don’t think it always or often covers “you need to change this but there’s no chance we’ll fire you for it.”

    2. anonymous73*

      There’s a whole lot of stuff in between “needs more training” and “you’re fired”.

  6. Person from the Resume*

    Keep in mind that consequences should rarely be punitive — think outcome, not punishment.

    The letter was short, but I got the impression the LW was coming from the point of view that the ultimate punishment was being fired and looking for smaller punishments so I think Alison’s point is key.

    Ex: Improve your performance or you’re fired, and to help you improve you have to turn your work in 2 days early so that someone can review it and then provide feedback to you so you can rework it before is sent to the other team. Having a shorter turn around time is a consquence of needing extra review, not just a punishment to ,ake the employee’s work life a bit harder.

    1. it's just the frame of mind*

      That’s a good example, and another example is, “If you’re not productive working from home, then you won’t be allowed to work from home.” It’s not punishment, it’s a consequence of your not being able to effectively work from home.

  7. Anna*

    I was chronically late – only by a few minutes and not every day, but I answer the phones so it actually matters. My boss told me to cut it out, I tried and failed to do so – so then she said, “look, this is a major issue and I don’t want it getting in the way of your success or future promotions. I know I’m not always here right at 9 but you need to be, so from now on, you’re gonna send me an email as soon as you get in every day.”

    I really appreciated her telling me how serious it was and that it could affect promotion, and I’ve improved significantly since that talk.

    1. No_woman_an_island*

      Thank you, this is actually a little eye-opening for me. I’m trying to phrase this in a way that sounds as honest as I intend it, so please don’t take it the wrong way. It helps to know there are situations in which an employee might not realize things like not showing up for your scheduled hours could affect future promotions. I kind of just assumed everyone operates on basic employment tenets, but it helps to know sometimes people will need to have everything laid out explicitly.

        1. No_woman_an_island*

          True true. But when a boss says “you have to come in on time” repeatedly, one would assume that one needs to improve or face consequences. It’s that part of the comment that helped me…that she didn’t realize there would be consequences when ignoring a boss’s requests.

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            And realizing a minute or so late is no big deal for everyone else, but it is for her because she covers phones. Especially if someone is new to being in a coverage role and is used to the “+/-10 is NBD unless there is a meeting” type of role

          2. Anon for now*

            We actually had to let someone go because their position was a coverage position and they kept arriving 3 to 5 minutes late. We offered to let them start 15 minutes later to give them an easier start in the morning, and they declined and said they’d get it under control.

            They didn’t. We tried to explain that it wasn’t fair to their coworkers to have to be constantly covering for their tardiness, but nothing sank in. After 3 conversations about it, 2 written warnings, and a one day suspension, they were finally terminated. Every single time up to the termination, they were told that this was becoming increasingly serious and that they were going to end up losing their job.

            And they were absolutely shocked when they were let go. It was so frustrating.

            1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              They were probably used to being let off the hook, by lazy parents who threatened without bothering to see it through.

        2. anonymous73*

          Yes, but in addition to being clear about expectations, managers need to be clear about the consequences if those expectations aren’t met.

      1. Bernice Clifton*

        I think some of it has to do with coming from a school or service job environment where consequences are laid out more explicitly and formally?

        “If your GPA falls below X, you can’t participate in any activities”

        “If you close and leave without mopping the floor again I am going to let you go.”

        1. ecnaseener*

          That’s a very good point! Coming from an environment where most consequences are either super apparent (even small ones like your grade dipping a couple points) or just a verbal warning with no follow-up, I can see people not realizing that the verbal warning/conversation can have more nebulous consequences.

      2. LinuxSystemsGuy*

        Well a lot depends on situation. I’ve rarely if ever needed to be exactly on time since I got into my current career field. Back when I taught middle school though it was really important. So changing careers or even changing offices may matter. Perhaps at OP’s last job she answered the phone, but was the expectation was that everyone got into the office a half hour before the office actually opens.

        In that situation, even though a part of the job was time sensitive, it wouldn’t matter if she was a few minutes late. Now that she’s scheduled to arrive at the time the office opens it’s a much bigger deal.

    2. Sparkles McFadden*

      I had a direct report who was late every day. I talked to him about it, saying we could adjust his schedule to accommodate his commute. He picked a later start time…and then came in well after that time every day. Every. Single. Day.

      I spoke with him again and explained that, though it seemed start time wasn’t critical in our job, it was a problem that no one knew when he’d be in. I said “If someone is looking for information on your particular projects and your coworker says you’ll be in a 9:30 and you don’t roll in until 10:45, it reflects poorly on the group as a whole. It makes your coworkers look disorganized and uninformed, and it makes you look unreliable. If you say you will be in at 9:30 and you are never in at 9:30, no one will believe you on anything else. I will work with you on your schedule, but we need to be able to believe that you will do what you say you’re going to do.” He was surprised and explained that every review he ever had talked about his chronic tardiness and he had even had his raise cut because of it but he “never understood why it was a big deal.” He thanked me for explaining and was never late again.

      Managers really need to be very, very clear about expectations. Don’t expect your direct reports to prioritize things in the same way you do.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        “every review he ever had talked about his chronic tardiness and he had even had his raise cut because of it ”

        Look, sorry, but he still needed it laid out? I mean, I guess he did, but it’s bizarre to me that having it mentioned in repeated reviews and losing out on a raise didn’t drive the point home.

        1. NerdyLibraryClerk*

          It didn’t make sense to him until someone explained why it was important. Or at least, that’s how I’m reading it. Some people are a lot better with expectations they actually understand. Sure, it had impacted him, but it sounds like he was perceiving it more as “You didn’t get a promotion because you didn’t wear a green shirt last Tuesday.” Or some other very arbitrary and nonsensical (to him) reason.

          It’s actually a very good story for pointing out why punishment is less important than clear explanation of why something matters.

          1. I should really pick a name*

            I find that kind of fascinating.
            Even if it made no sense to me, I’d do what I was asked to do.

            1. Jade Golden*

              If I don’t know the reason behind something it makes it very difficult for me to remember to do it to begin with. So if I’m told the reason upfront my brain neatly files that information and I always remember, but there have been times I had to be repeatedly told something because since it didn’t make logical sense to me, my brain just didn’t process it. It’s still my responsibility to know this about myself and be proactive about asking for explanations of course.

              1. Koala dreams*

                Unfortunately, asking for an explanation is often seen as being argumentative or insubordinate, so often it just makes things worse.

                1. allathian*

                  Often it depends on how you ask. If you make it clear that you’re asking because it makes it easier for you to comply with a request if you understand the reasoning behind it, and not because you have a list of reasons why you aren’t going to do that, no reasonable manager should have a problem with that. Obviously, lots of people work for unreasonable managers…

                2. yala*

                  Yeah, that’s a problem I’ve run into a lot. I’ve even tried explaining up-front that I’m asking just because I need clarification, or because I need to understand why *X* is what I should do for this thing when *Y* is the actual procedure…

                  I don’t know. Maybe I’m just bad at asking it right, so now I just kind of grit my teeth and do the thing the way I’m told, even if I’m pretty sure something is inaccurate.

                3. Nanani*

                  I’m sorry you have to deal with people who react to a request for clarification as though you were an impertinent teenager :/
                  A healthy functional work environment shouldn’t be like that, but sadly it happens anyway.

                4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

                  Yeah, well I was always taught not to accept “because I say so” as a reason for doing things, so I ask. Someone who has a problem with explaining why, is someone I can’t work happily with.

          2. Curmudgeon in California*

            This. I have a hard time due to my own cognitive issues conforming to what seem to be arbitrary demands. If you tell me why, it links up with other thought processes and becomes more important and firm.

            Being “on time” because the boss wants it is different than being “on time” because my team needs me to answer questions or attend meetings is actually different in my head. One is a real reason, the other is just a petty power flex.

            Brains are weird.

        2. Lobsterman*

          Sometimes humans need it 3 or 5 times. People are funny. All you can do is stick to feedback that’s proven to work.

        3. Mental Lentil*

          Well, that communication didn’t happen until his review. A better manager would have addressed it loooooooooooong before then.

          Good communication is fairly immediate. Don’t watch me do something wrong six times before you finally get frustrated enough to say something on the seventh try. Say something right away.

        4. Lexi Vipond*

          I’d gladly take slightly less money and a mild telling off once a year in exchange for the ability to be, say, mostly on time and a bit late when the traffic is bad rather than ridiculously early most days in order to be on time on the worst ones. I sleep better in the early mornings than earlier in the night, for one thing, so I feel better and do better work on a slightly later schedule.

          So at that level it’s a me problem – and not even necessarily a problem, just a balance. If it’s a serious practical problem for other people, that’s a bit different.

        5. Boof*

          It may be that they thought tardiness was “worth it” until it was spelled out that it impacted others too

      2. just another bureaucrat*

        But this isn’t being clear about expectations, it’s about something else. This person had been clearly told in every review that it mattered AND had his raise cut because of it. But he chose to ignore those consequences. This is someone who had (surprisingly) had clear expectations that they chose to ignore and pay the price for. He wasn’t able to see ALL the consequences of his actions so that’s what you explained. But I think that’s different than expectations.

        Just noting this because for some people I didn’t get money is an end all be all consequence, but for others, I’m unreliable and I make my team look bad is a consequence. Different consequences matter to different people.

        1. Mental Lentil*

          Why are they waiting until his review to tell him his tardiness is an issue? It’s way too late then.

          It’s on the manager to say something in a quicker frame of mind. If I’ve been doing something all year that is wrong and you don’t tell me until my annual review, I’m going to spend an entire year thinking that this thing is okay. I’m going to have a lot of neural pathways formed that reinforce this behavior.

          If you’re a manager, you need to manage! It’s right there in the name!

  8. FORMERHigherEdPerson*

    I agree! I also like to think through the impact that their behavior has on colleagues/clients/customers/patients/community stakeholders, etc, and share that with them. “If you continue to do X, it could impact our relationship with the community. People will start to lose trust in you and in us as an organization.” This is part of helping the employee see the bigger picture and that their actions or inaction have a ripple effect.
    It’s the same with the consequences. Yes, it could lead to more disciplinary conversations, but it also has consequences on your colleagues! They have to cover for you, or they will start to lose respect in you, etc.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      The model for feedback that I learned in management training was:
      1) State the behavior that you observed or were told about.
      2) State how that behavior affects the people/situation around the person.
      3) Establish expectations going forward.
      4) Ensure the person understands.

      So it would look something like:
      1) “Klaes, I overheard you telling Camina’s reports that her decision on the Behemoth project was ill-advised and that the project would fail as a result.”
      2) “When you say things like that, it undermines Camina’s authority as a manager, and hurts her team’s motivation.”
      3) “If you have a problem with Camina’s approach to the Behemoth project or any of her other decisions, I expect you will discuss those issues with her in private, or with me.”
      4) “Is that clear?”

      And then, depending on the seriousness of the issue (and especially if it is part of a pattern of behavior), I tend to follow up with an e-mail that basically summarizes our discussion and save a copy in an e-mail folder for that employee.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        Oh gosh, this approach makes it simple. And it really should be! You may have to repeat this a few times with some employees, but overall it’s very effective.

        I actually learned something very similar in teacher training. It does require that you as a manager actually take the time to identify the exact root cause issue that needs to change. Too many managers don’t actually do that.

        1. WantonSeedStitch*

          I even use similar structure with my toddler. “Please don’t throw your truck. When you throw your toys, they could break, or you could hurt someone. You can roll your truck on the floor, like this, but don’t throw it. OK?”

          1. Rosalind Franklin*

            But do you send your toddler a follow up email confirming they have understood the truck rolling policy per your discussion???

            On a more serious note: yes all this. The email is the key if you have a firm HR and want to move forward with discipline – it clearly documents the discussion and has saved my butt more than once when someone decided to lie and say they were never informed about x action being unacceptable.

            1. quill*

              They can’t read, so it’s better to actually tell them “per our last conversation about the dangers of truck throwing…”

      2. Curmudgeon in California*

        IMO, item number two is an important one. Some people need to be able to connect the dots like that for things to stick.

      3. MsSolo UK*

        This is very similar to the BIFF technique that was covered in my recent EDI Training – Behaviour, Impact, Feelings, Future. Feelings isn’t relevant for professional feedback* but making sure they understand the action they need to take is important.

        * with EDI, the idea is it gives the feedback more weight to say “I am disappointed by how you acted” or “I am upset by what you said” when talking about racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic behaviour rather than “some people might think” or “it might be perceived as”, which is softening language that places the issue outside of your control. It’s similar to how Alison recommends avoiding “everyone thinks” feedback in the office; the feedbackee will either write it off as wishy-washy or end up paranoid that everyone is against them.

  9. Siobhan Green*

    I had a good employee with attendance issues. – we are pretty flexible but his last minute schedule changes were really impacting people.

    I had a conversation about why he was behaving this way and discovered he had friends and family who saw “flexible work” as no work, and did stuff like demand he drive them around during work hours (even drive 3 states away 1 time!).

    I told him to tell his family that I put him on a behavior improvement plan which required my personal approval for changes to his regular schedule so I could be the bad guy…

    1. Bugalugs*

      That’s very nice of you to do but in the end it doesn’t actually help them. They need to be able to say not today I have to work and manage their own family/personal relationships. If they move jobs and the new one is also flexible it’ll will just continue. Depending on what they’re doing if they can’t manage those relationships it also tells me that they’ll never be able to manage people or bigger projects that they might have to manage expectations. Sometimes the best experience is personal life experience.

      1. h*

        I gotta disagree! I mean, I do agree that it’s in one’s best interest to be able to set boundaries in all their relationships. But I know many people, myself included, who are high functioning in a work setting and still struggle to use those same skills in a personal setting. Family relationships can be really intense, and I don’t think we can necessarily extrapolate that someone who has trouble managing their family expectations will have the same problem managing work projects.

        1. Bugalugs*

          Your right family issues came for sure be more complicated and I very much lucked out in that department and I can see how I can be off base on the managing projects. I do however still believe it has a big impact on the ability to manage people. If one of your staff or more have very strong personalities and pushes back against things are they actually going to be able to stand their ground when needed. I would have a very hard time believing that they wouldn’t be a pushover in a work setting if they also can’t set these boundaries simply to be able to get to work.

      2. ecnaseener*

        You might be right, but it’s not really Siobhan’s job to teach their employee life skills. Whatever gets him to work on time is good enough for work purposes, it’s on him to practice setting boundaries.

        1. Nanani*

          I don’t see it as teaching life skills so much as giving the employee a useful tool for setting boundaries around their work time.

          1. ecnaseener*

            I think you missed the reply chain – I was responding to Bugalugs saying Siobhan wasn’t doing the employee any favors by giving him an excuse to say no to his family. It sounds like you and I agree, giving him the easy excuse is fine.

      3. SnappinTerrapin*

        If I have an employee who learns while working for me some life skills that helps him in personal relationships or future jobs, that is a benefit to him in the long run. But that isn’t my primary goal. My job is to get my employees to do the work our employer and its customers need to have done, in the way that meets the employer’s and customers’ needs. It’s up to him to decide whether the practices I encourage benefit him enough to incorporate them into his life outside of this particular job. That’s a matter of him deciding what his own needs and priorities are, and assessing whether these practices benefit him in that context.

      4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Helping the guy set boundaries like this is fine in the circumstances. Siobhan’s role is not to teach her report to set boundaries with his family, it’s to get him to arrive at work on time. He might not even “blame” her, he might simply understand from the conversation that he’ll have to shape up, and tell his family “sorry no, my boss told me I’m in danger of being fired if I take too much time off”.

    2. Nanani*

      Oooof that is a hard one.
      I’ve been through that conversation and putting the boundary down can be tricky. Depends on the interpersonal dynamics involved and can be far harder with some people than others.

      Offering to be The Bad Guy is a great tool that your employee can use to set those boundaries!

  10. kiwidg*

    As someone who was recently put on an informal improvement plan (think internal org vs. HR), I would have appreciated it if my manager(s) would have taken the time to point out a) what behaviors were becoming unacceptable and b) why/how it was affecting the team, project etc.

    Instead of being told out of the blue that my performance wasn’t what they wanted and they were putting me on a PIP.

    (It might have made me go get anti-depressants faster, which largely solved whatever problems they were seeing.)

    The episode made me seriously want to clip several AAM articles about being clear and concise and direct with performance issues.

    1. Mental Lentil*

      This brings up the point that Alison so often has to make: USE YOUR WORDS. Too many managers don’t actually manage (protip: 90% of management is communication), and just hope that employees will get the hint or pick up on something…somewhere…in the air, maybe?

      Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Good managers communicate quickly and effectively and consistently. And they ask for feedback. They’re often afraid of confrontation, but guess what: when you communicate well, there is no need for a confrontation. Communication is one of the ways you build trust.

      Thank you for bringing this up, and I hope you’re doing all right.

      1. kiwidg*

        Thank you – yes, I’m fine. As I explain it to others – the happy pills make other people a little less annoying. :)

        The odd thing is that I think the manager(s) all THINK they had the discussion with me. And I’m thinking no, what I heard was “do this one thing” from them. And then no follow up on whether I was doing that or not. I, of course, said, yup, I’m doing that, so everything must be fine.

        Your commend on “use your words” is so true. Not just to say “do this not that” but also to dig into things maybe a little deeper to make sure the person and you are actually on the same page and not seeing it from completely opposite viewpoints.

      2. Bernice Clifton*

        I agree.

        If you want your employee to dress more professionally, don’t ask questions like, “Aren’t you cold?? Aren’t you afraid you’ll step on something in your bare feet??” and assume they will get the hint.

      3. Goldenrod*

        This is so true. I’ve been shocked and appalled at how many managers actually use the silent treatment as a way of expressing displeasure.

        Or they come down really hard on the person for EVERYTHING instead of just pointing out the actual thing they are doing wrong (i.e. the performance issue turns into an excuse for a free-for-all ongoing attack on the employee who then becomes a scapegoat).

        1. Emily*

          Or my least favorite: they make an announcement to the whole staff instead of taking it up directly with the problem people.

          1. Curmudgeon in California*

            Ugh. Like the one job that cancelled WFH for everyone instead of managing the 2% of people who weren’t even phoning it in.

  11. Dinwar*

    One of the key concepts in safety since the second Iraq War has been “Left Of Boom”. The Army found that their methods for addressing IEDs all started after the explosion. So essentially someone drew a timeline pointing to the right, put “BOOM!” in the middle, and said “We need to address this on the left side of the timeline.” (That’s not really how it happened, but it gets the point across.) The idea was that every explosion was the result of a series of upstream failures, any one of which could have prevented the incident. Since military people become contractors on a regular basis, this has seeped into a lot of safety cultures. And it’s a good framework; it encourages not just reduction in incidents, but actually making work safer. We don’t deal with IEDs most of the time, but any incident or near-miss can be considered the boom for the purpose of this exercise. It also neatly gels with Root Cause Analysis. The typical incident investigation looks at the immediate problem, but leaves the ultimate causes untouched (usually unidentified), ensuring a recurrence of the incident.

    I think a similar framework is helpful here. Think of not meeting expectations as the boom. Punishment, including termination, is by definition right of boom. It’s after the fact. What you want to do instead is look upstream. What conditions allow this failure to occur? Is it a lack of training? A lack of support? Lack of clear guidance? Lack of quality control measures? Attitude problems? Unreasonable expectations? Fix THOSE problems and you won’t need to deal with as many people not meeting expectations.

    Anna above gave an example of an application of a QC procedure that resolved a performance issue. Being late is a lost-time incident–typically not just for the one employee, but for a team. Adding a check to see that folks are coming in on time mitigates this. And it’s a left-of-boom solution (immediately left of it, but still left of it). The worker is reminded to show up on time because of that standing deliverable.

    Another option, one I’ve used, is to reduce oversight. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it worked. On one jobsite everything was so rigidly controlled that the geologists onsite were bored out of their minds. Bored workers are bad workers, and quality drops drastically. So when they moved to another site, we reduced the amount of oversight. We let them make a few more decisions, within clearly-defined limits. Quality went up because they were more engaged.

    This attitude also helps avoid these discussions being confrontational, or at least as confrontational. I’ve found that if I approach these things from a perspective of “First, let me see what I did wrong” people are more willing to work with me. Is it manipulative? Absolutely. But to be blunt, the purpose of management is to manipulate people. Any attempt to change a person’s actions can be termed manipulation. Punishment is manipulation–a crude, blunt-force type, but manipulation none the less. I don’t find less crude methods to be distasteful. (And I fully acknowledge that my bosses manipulate me. It’s part of life, whether we want to admit it or not.)

    Of those 10% who don’t care about culture and will screw around anyway, maybe 90% can be trained via disciplinary action. For them, it depends on the individual. Some will respond to stern lectures. Some to being put on crappy jobs. Some to being sent home without pay. You just have to find what works. My go-to is increased oversight. I work with scientists and engineers, and they HATE having someone look over their shoulders–but it’s justifiable because I need this stuff to be right. It usually gets the point across, without being personal.

    Assume that 1% are hopeless and will need to be let go. It’s harsh, but this is “Ask A Manager”, not “Feel Good Happy Fun Blog”. We’re paid to face these harsh realities. It doesn’t mean that the person is bad, necessarily–someone can be a fantastic person, but such a horrible fit for the company that the only option for both parties is to part ways. Accept that the hiring process is, like any other industrial process, going to have a certain failure rate.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      I like it. Essentially, trying to address issues before they become major problems (boom) is less expensive in terms of time, tedium and tension.

    2. MsSolo UK*

      I misread IEDs as IUDs, and honestly, if those are going Boom you really want to be way ahead of that!

  12. Goldenrod*

    “Consequences don’t always have to be formal, and sometimes formal consequences can be overkill. In many — in fact, probably most — situations, an appropriate consequence is simply a serious conversation with you, asking about what happened and what the plan is for avoiding it in the future”

    I agree with this – but would also add, that NOT EVERYTHING THAT GOES WRONG merits even a serious conversation either.

    Mistakes that happen repeatedly – where the employee needs to change something – absolutely require a serious conversation.

    But I’ve had managers where this WASN’T the case – the mistake was just a one-off where you knew instantly where you went wrong – and they insisted on shaming you with a big “let’s see how we can avoid this next time” conversation.

    But sometimes it’s not something you can avoid – because it was just a random mistake that could have happened to anyone, and you really don’t need the additional shaming.

    The best managers can let things go sometimes – and just have the debriefing when it really does need to happen. Not everything is an opportunity for process improvement.

    1. Nanani*

      That type of manager (or overzealous peer, ahem) is the ~worst~.
      The “Why did you make this mistake?” conversation is painful because the answer is usually “because I’m a human and it happens”.
      A serious conversation about every minor thing is not helpful, certainly not as useful as say, making sure everyone has access to proofing tools and making sure your process has enough time for QA, among other things.

    2. ecnaseener*

      Do you think they were trying to shame you, or was that just your reaction? (Not trying to minimize it either way – just curious if there’s any way to have this sort of discussion without the person feeling ashamed.)

      1. Goldenrod*

        I get your question. I really do think bad bosses try to shame employees.

        I’ve had this happen to me and I’ve also seen in happen to others. In my last job, my manager was abusive and would use any mistake, no matter how minor, as an excuse to have the “how can we prevent this from happening again” conversation, and it was clearly just an excuse to attack me personally.

        But with an amazing boss I had – if there was nothing to be learned or gained from having a conversation, she would never mention any mistake. BUT she also didn’t hesitate if there was a good reason to discuss. Her tone would be very matter-of-fact and forthcoming. It was never shaming, because it was presented in an unemotional and non-personal way, just like: here is what happened and how it could have gone better. And because I could feel her respect for me (and she built that into our dynamic from the beginning, which made it easy for us to both have honest communication.

        1. Goldenrod*

          A more succinct way I could have said this is – I always feel shame when I make a mistake at work. But I don’t always feel like I am BEING shamed when I make a mistake at work.

          The first one is an emotional reaction I have (which I am working on!). But the second one is a bad management decision.

        2. ecnaseener*

          I don’t doubt there are bosses who shame people! My question is, of the bosses who tend to go for the “what went wrong here?” conversation in cases when (from the report’s point of view) it was obviously an unavoidable human error, is that always intentional shaming or could it sometimes be just a style mismatch?

          1. Goldenrod*

            Sure. It could be a style mismatch.

            I guess I’m thinking of specific situations where the debriefing conversation felt to me like it was being disingenuously used as a weapon. One specific situation I remember is a friend of mine who was an assistant to a very abusive boss.

            Something went wrong – which, in my opinion, was a normal mistake – and this boss WENT OFF on my friend in our front office. In front of an audience. It was just horrible to witness. Her boss was yelling at her, going on and on, but was putting it in the language of “WHAT CAN WE DO TO PREVENT THIS FROM HAPPENING AGAIN?”

            I think she was doing that because she knew, on some level, that she was just being abusive. But it wasn’t a real conversation or a real attempt to get at the facts.

            So I mean…yeah, could a boss accidentally be trying to have an innocent conversation and have a touchy report take it the wrong way? Sure, that could happen.

            But my advice to managers would be – hey, save those debriefing conversations for when there really is something helpful to be learned by having it. Don’t do it EVERY SINGLE TIME things go wrong, because that can feel punitive to the employee. And most of us feel bad enough when we make mistakes – we don’t need a pile-on.

    3. WantonSeedStitch*

      If a one-off mistake is a big deal, I would want to have a conversation just to find out why it happened. I would probably start things with “OK, let’s get this fixed.” And when it was fixed, “so how did this end up happening?” I would want to know if it was a simple slip (like putting the wrong name in the “to” field of an e-mail), or if there was something unclear about instructions I’d given, or if there was something about our workflow that made mistakes like that one more likely to happen. That’s important–I want to know if *I* need to do something to keep mistakes from happening.
      If it was just a simple slip, unless the person had a habit of carelessness, I would say “ok, well, fortunately we were able to fix it!” and drop it.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        This. The difference between “How did this happen [how did you mess up so badly]?” and “How did this happen [do we have a systemic problem here that is setting us collectively up for failure]?”

    4. Filosofickle*

      I briefly had a manager who would look at my paperwork and if she saw a mistake she’d call across the whole room and say “Filosofickle, there’s an error here. If you have a question you need to ask.” Look, lady, if I had a question I would have asked. I made a mistake, and I don’t make many of those. Totally fine to flag an error for me, but it didn’t need to be done publicly nor did it need to be a lesson. She was so annoying.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        My former boss would summon us to a meeting and list every single “error”, for all of us, with the admonishment that we had to pay more attention to these points. Whereas sometimes, it was just that his system didn’t work for us. One very petty point was that he liked to have all pending files in a “pending files” box. He enjoyed looking through the box and interrupting everyone to ask “how is this file going?”. Whereas for me, if the file was in that box, it was dead to me. If it was in a heap of files I was currently working on, on my desk where I would come across it, there was far less danger of me forgetting. The boss didn’t like it because he didn’t feel that he could just pick stuff up off my desk (thank goodness for that). Thing was, he could also simply open up the file where we logged all work, and see all files pending at a glance. But meetings were not supposed to be an opportunity to discuss and improve systems and working methods, just an opportunity to for him to nitpick.

    5. SnappinTerrapin*

      I think it’s worth noting that a bad result doesn’t necessarily mean the employee made any bad decisions or choices leading up to the bad result. Sometimes, it’s someone else’s choices or something else beyond control of anyone in the enterprise that caused the situation to go sideways. That doesn’t mean there is no merit to a debrief for the purpose of identifying contributing factors and opportunities to develop a better menu of choices in the future. It just means that the analysis doesn’t necessarily have to find “fault” in order to be useful.

  13. Nanani*

    This is such a good article!
    Work is not high school; consequences shouldn’t be you’re field’s equivalent extra homework and detention.

    I’d just add that another benefit to serious consequences is that it helps the manager figure out where systematic issues are, or really anything that’s outside the employee’s control, so they can also address that.
    Is it a training issue? Lack of time to proofread materials leading to avoidable typos? Institutional knowledge that’s hard to access and takes a long time to pick up?
    Is someone being held to an unreasonably high standard – humans make mistakes all the time after all.

    That’s the sort of thing a healthy workplace would want to hear about and address globally, and not as “don’t make mistakes again” type scolding. (not that it sounds like OP would do that!)

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        LOL. Typos are human. If I end up getting the “serious conversation” for every typo, I will be looking for a new gig before the month is up!

        In my field that’s why we have peer review of work product, because usually another person’s eyes are better at spotting typos or mistakes.

        (BTW, I fixed about four typos in the typing of this message. )

        1. Nanani*

          This is how it should be and yet I have this one “colleague” who seems to think every typo is a personal affront and condescendingly pastes dictionary definitions of words into their feedback, as if the only way one could write the wrong word is ignorance and not like, a typo that got autocorrected wrong.

    1. Paisley*

      I’d just add that another benefit to serious consequences is that it helps the manager figure out where systematic issues are, or really anything that’s outside the employee’s control, so they can also address that.
      Is it a training issue? Lack of time to proofread materials leading to avoidable typos? Institutional knowledge that’s hard to access and takes a long time to pick up?
      Is someone being held to an unreasonably high standard – humans make mistakes all the time after all.

      That’s the sort of thing a healthy workplace would want to hear about and address globally, and not as “don’t make mistakes again” type scolding.

      Excellent comment. I could not agree more, Nanani! Why so many managers do not understand this very basic stuff really confuses and angers me, and it causes workers a lot of harm.

      I’ve been a manager for a long time and, at least 95% of the time, the issues that you mention are the actual cause of any problems, or potential problems. If the person is new to the job, the issues you mention are behind it basically 100% of the time.

      A half-decent manager does not respond to one or two mistakes by dumping someone onto some sort of PIP, or threatening to fire them, especially if a person is new, and/or if you are such a poor manager that you can not even explain what your issue is with the person’s work and how they are meant to be improving. If you want to be a manager because you enjoy the power, you need to not be a manager. Ever.

      1. Nanani*

        Thank you! That’s kind of you to say!

        And I agree, people who lack the self-awareness to realize their employees can’t read their minds and accuse people of getting things wrong on purpose when it’s actually just a communication issue are the worst and should not be managing humans.

  14. Shasta*

    Super timely for me. I’ve got an employee who’s performance is currently “not great” and is rapidly trending toward “not acceptable.” It isn’t time for a PIP, but I’ve been feeling like I don’t have any other tools because regular, consistent feedback isn’t doing the job.

    I hadn’t thought about potentially changing the nature of his work. He’s on a highly desirable project right now with relatively little supervision, if he can’t get his act together it is a natural consequence that he’d need to move to something where I can supervise his work more directly.

  15. Sharon*

    When you are managing an underperforming employee, it’s important to try to get at the root cause. If the employee didn’t follow the procedure, is it because (1) they didn’t know about or understand the procedure, (2) they think the procedure is ineffective/inappropriate for the outcome it’s supposed to produce, (3) the procedure is difficult for them, or (4) they just don’t feel like it. Each of these requires a different action. So a consequence of #1 is training. If the problem is #2 management might either revisit the procedure, or explain to the employee how the procedure was arrived at (e.g., senior leaders spent 6 months working on this and considered regulations, efficiency, cost, technology etc. and none of those things have changed so they aren’t going to revisit it at this time ). For #3 or 4 you might need modifications/accommodations, more direct supervision, change of responsibilities, or ultimately deciding the employee is not a good fit because they are unable or unwilling to perform the job duties you hired them for.

    1. m_sparkles*

      This! This is why most, if not all, conversations with employees concerning performance issues needs to be conversation. Without having a conversation, you cannot get to the root of the issue and therefore cannot come up with an appropriate solution. It’s definitely possible the conversation will be an employee just refusing to do work (I have had that happen before) but odds are there is more to it than that.

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      senior leaders spent 6 months working on this and considered regulations, efficiency, cost, technology etc. and none of those things have changed so they aren’t going to revisit it at this time

      That would set of my BS detector; it’s not the senior leaders who are going to be fired over the bad procedure.

  16. CCC*

    I’ve written like 3 different comments about operant conditioning here, but keep deleting them because I get off on a tangent. But steps like “have an uncomfortable conversation to deter a behavior” is straight up psych 101. It’s probably worth skimming wikipedia if you’re not familiar. Many management/training best practices boil down to operant conditioning, whether you’re getting an employee to show up on time or housetraining your dog. It might feel a little icky to consider management in this way, but we’re all just meat sacks with cool brains in the end, and there’s a reason that B. F. Skinner is still being discussed 75+ years later.

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