Toughest Decisions at Work

Do employees ever start their careers to become problem employees?

Leadership involves the creation of a work environment where the leader has people that follow.

This means the leader has a deep responsibility to make their direction, vision, and the mission of the department as well as the organization clear to employees while making certain they know what are their expected roles.

When an employee does not perform to the expectations of the organization despite discussions of how the organization may help the employee to succeed, then the leader must step up and make the expectations clear or possibly release the employee. This ‘crossroads’ of effective decision making about how to fire staff -and the conversations that follow this – are felt by many leaders to be the toughest decisions at work.

The leader needs to sit down with the employee, look them in the eye, and tell them their work does not measure up to the organization’s standards or possibly tell them their employment is terminated.

Furthermore, in today’s litigious times, where a lawsuit is very possible, the leader must have this conversation in a way, which removes emotion from the dialogue and with an ability to defend the decision in the event of a lawsuit.

Rules on Tough Conversations for Personnel

Here are rules for a tough conversation on personnel when it comes to termination of employment. These apply in any employment setting, whether a union represents them or not. Good sense and good communication go hand in hand.

Deciding what not to do or say is as important as deciding what to do or say.

First, start early so the problem doesn’t grow. Tough conversations shouldn’t be a surprise. The groundwork for a tough conversation comes first.

Deciding what not to do or say is as important as deciding what to do or say

Second, listen to the people involved in the situation. Listen to the employee in the early conversations as well as during the tough conversation. Listen to other people around the employee and hear their concerns. Sometimes your assumptions don’t have all the facts.

Third, put think, plan, and do into practice. Think what actions need to be taken, plan how to proceed, and then follow through with the implementation.

Fourth, focus on what matters. Four critical areas matter once you have your think, plan, and do strategy in place.

Have Someone Present with You in the Meeting

Whenever you have a meeting in regard to a disciplinary issue, always have someone present with you in the meeting.

This individual serves two purposes. The first purpose is to have someone with you in case of any physical altercation issues. These are rare, but in the case of someone with extreme anger or a mental disorder, you will find the person’s presence in the meeting comforting.

Tell the person you are meeting with what this individual’s role will be and then proceed. This role becomes critical since it can eliminate someone’s misinterpretation of what you said.

Steps for Progressive Discipline or Intervention

Whenever you become involved with correcting an employee’s behavior, you focus your efforts on having the employee restore self-discipline through your intervention.

We apply this step “progressively,” so if the first step doesn’t succeed, we progress to the next step. Sometimes a behavior has been so egregious that immediate termination becomes the best course, but for most cases, a good path to follow includes these steps:

A Verbal Reprimand

Tell the employee your concern. When you return to your office, make a note of the conversation and include the date as well as what you said your expectations would be in the future.

A Verbal Reprimand with a Written Confirmation

You can strengthen your verbal reprimand by sending the employee an email of the conversation and a request to confirm the conversation. This extra step makes the verbal confirmation more powerful for the future.

A Written Reprimand

This becomes much stronger than a verbal reprimand. In this step, you now formally place your concerns in writing. Include information in the reprimand, such as the facts, the rules that were broken, and the impact on your area of responsibility.

In the second step, you meet with the employee. Review the written reprimand with the employee. Tell him or her your expectations for the future. Allow the employee a chance to respond to you in the meeting.

If he or she brings something up that you didn’t consider, you can tell the employee that you will consider this and get back to him or her.

Once you feel you have all the facts, meet again with the employee and deliver the written reprimand. Make certain that you follow your protocol and place the memo in his or her personnel file.

Suspension without Pay

If you have had previous issues and documented them without any improvement in behavior or action by the employee, you need to consider a suspension without pay. At this point, you need to have your Human Resources Department fully involved in the conversation.

Make certain all your language in writing is clear and can stand the test of a court. You can suspend an employee for a short period, such as three days or a longer period such as thirty days or more.

The Termination of Employment Process

Make certain your Human Resources Department or legal counsel assist you in this step. An employee termination should never be a surprise to him or her. The person should have had a couple of verbal warnings or written reprimands before this point.

As you apply these steps to rebuild discipline, a good leader will take the facts, rules, and impact an employee has in the workplace and deal with him or her immediately. The leader doesn’t have to wait until a crisis hits and then deal with the crisis. If an employee has a difficulty, the supervisor should discuss it as soon as possible.


READ ALSO: Importance of Communication Skills for Leadership and Management


Tell the employee what you believe the facts to be, then listen to the employee’s response. There may be more to the story than the supervisor saw. Ideally, the supervisor and employee both agree on the facts; this fact can help to resolve the issue before it becomes a serious problem.

The supervisor might privately say, “I saw you come in late this morning. This is the third time this has happened in the last week. What is going on that you are late?” This opens the dialogue for the employee to respond. The supervisor might find out it’s a problem and tell the employee to correct it. The supervisor might find out the employee had to drop something off in another department and actually came in early. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.

If there is a problem, the next step should be for the supervisor to communicate to the employee what rules have been broken and what the expectations to the employee are.

The supervisor might say, “Our work rules are for us to start at eight a.m. If you are late, please call my office and let me know in the future.”

The third step is to let the employee know how the issue affects the workplace and others around the employee. A supervisor’s comment might be, “I received your report three days late. As a result, we missed a deadline, and now our department might miss a funding opportunity. Your lateness affected our department’s budget.”

Don’t lead with your heart. Don’t run from your fear. Tough conversations need to have think, plan, and do at the core.

They should also approach the issue of the employee. When the person was hired, did he or she ever plan to fail at his or her work?

While this becomes an opinion, I don’t believe people start something with the plan to fail, especially when it’s their livelihood.

With people, everything matters


Author David Bugay has written the book Backbonology where he unfolds tough decision making by managers and leaders.

Backbonology is all about being able to stand strong in the midst of adversity. It takes a backbone to stand when others fear to make a tough call in the workplace.

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Before he became the Vice Chancellor Human Resources for South Orange County Community College District, Dr. Bugay spent over a decade in other higher education positions as well as almost a decade in K-12 education as principal and administrator. An organizational behaviorist, he has served on the boards of the Association of California Community College Administrators, Association of Chief Human Resource Officers and International Higher Education Teaching Learning. He is a frequent presenter on topics ranging from tough decisions, managing change, to hiring, and communication. His latest book, Backbonology: Tough Decisions at Work, is scheduled to launch in early 2018.