The following article was first published on February 24, 2010.
Dear Crucial Skills,
At our organization, we expect our employees to be ready to care for patients at the start of their shift. But I have several employees who are far in the disciplinary path because they consistently “clock-in” a minute or two late. Of course, they would have been on time if “the water main hadn’t broken,” or they “hadn’t been stuck behind a school bus.” These employees feel the policy is punitive, unfair, and intolerant; and they have the empathy of the early arrivers. Help!
First, let me congratulate you for confronting the problem early and consistently, so that the late arrivers are already “far in the disciplinary path.” The most common mistake we make is to let these kinds of problems slide, and as a result, give our tacit permission for bad behavior. Here are a few tips for confronting your late arrivals:
1. Make sure the rule is clear. If you inherited this problem and your predecessor gave his/her tacit permission to let people come in late, you will want to give “fair warning” before beginning to enforce the policy. You will want to talk to the team, and specifically to the late arrivers, to explain the policy and to let them know that you will be enforcing it.
2. Have the crucial confrontation. You usually don’t notice the first time an employee comes in late; you notice when it’s become a pattern. The key is to have the conversation as soon as you realize someone is consistently coming in late. Describe the gap between what you expect and what you’ve observed, and probe for the cause of the problem.
Problems are caused by motivation (the person doesn’t share your priority) or ability (the person is unable or has difficulty complying) or a combination of both. If your employee doesn’t share your priority for arriving on time (motivation), explain the natural consequences for his or her patients, peers, and unit. If necessary, explain the imposed consequences involved in your organization’s disciplinary path.
If the person is having difficulty arriving on time (ability), ask for his or her ideas for making it happen. Encourage the employee to develop a plan that will work for him or her. But don’t allow ability blocks to become excuses. The person needs a plan that results in on-time arrival.
Often, the person will end up with both short-term and long-term plans. The long-term plan might be to get his or her car repaired; the short-term plan might be to get a ride with his or her spouse. By the end of this crucial confrontation, the person should explicitly agree on who will do what by when. Take care that you don’t transfer the burden to your back. People need to develop a viable solution that they buy into. And they need to understand that, if their solution doesn’t work, consequences will be imposed.
3. Impose the consequences. It sounds as if you have arrived at this step. If you don’t think you had a full and frank crucial confrontation, then feel free to have it now. However, if you have already had the crucial confrontation, the latecomers have already agreed on a plan, and they have failed to live up to their agreements, it’s time to impose consequences.
Take care to involve the right people in your up chain—your manager and HR—where appropriate. Try to avoid blindsiding anyone.
Before you meet with an employee, take some time to get your head and your heart right. Ask yourself what you really want—you want the person to be successful somewhere, but you can’t continue the costs to patients and your team. Then meet with the employee and explain the situation—you established a plan you both agreed to, and the employee has failed to live up to it—and the next step in the disciplinary process. Master your stories, and keep the dialogue professional. Create as much safety as possible, but understand that the employee is likely to be hurt or angry.
4. Dealing with others. When an employee is terminated, it’s normal for other employees to feel sympathy for that employee. It’s also normal for people to feel some fear about whether they will be next. You can’t share personnel information or feed the rumor mill. My guess is that, while many will have sympathy and empathy for the person, they will also feel relief that they won’t have to carry that person’s load any longer.
Best wishes for this next period. You should feel proud of yourself for stepping up to these tough conversations. Without your actions, problems like these would linger, festering in your team and undermining your ability to treat your patients.