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In an ideal world, employees would do their jobs perfectly: nothing would ever be late and mistakes would never be made. But to err is human. Once in a while, someone will mess up and you'll have no choice but to seriously address the situation.

The art of reprimanding employees requires tact, timing and an understanding of human nature. When done improperly, the consequences range from reduced morale and productivity to resignations and terminations, wrongful dismissal suits and human rights investigations.

Timing is everything

Don't take action immediately, because your anger can block the problem-solving process. So says Cy Charney, president of management consulting company Charney and Associates Inc., and author of six best-selling management books, including The Portable Mentor. "Your tone of voice is going to lead to confrontation, not problem-solving."

You also need to investigate the exact cause of the problem before reacting, says André Latour, president of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario. Are you addressing your concerns to the correct person? Are other people involved? Is equipment or tool failure part of the equation?

That said, waiting too long to address the issue will establish a precedent, says Latour: "Degradation in performance that is maintained and not addressed becomes the norm."

The art of language

To create the right climate for a discussion, ask the employee in question for permission to meet and discuss the problem. "Even though it's unlikely they're going to say no," says Charney, "it really sets up that it's a discussion where you're going to work through this together." Once you're in a private place ready to discuss the problem, focus specifically on the issue. "The worst thing you can do is generalize," says Charney, "and use those two terrible words: ‘always' and ‘never'." Being specific will leave little room for argument and defensiveness. Finally, remember to be assertive in your language. "The key is to use the ‘I' word — ‘I was upset that …' — not the ‘you' word, which is aggressive," says Charney. At the end of the meeting, summarize your discussion so that expectations are understood.

Their problem, their solution

Once you've discussed the issue and agree that there is a problem, give ownership of the solution to your employee. "[Find out if] there are any issues [he or she can identify] as the cause, and how can you help him or her return to a level of productivity that would be necessary to operate at," says Latour. Your employee understands what stresses they are dealing with both at work and at home, and are best equipped to identify the cause of the problem and the most appropriate solution. By allowing them to own the solution, you boost morale and give them confidence that they are a part of the company.

Keeping tabs

When you follow up with employees on how their solution is working, if the outcome is unsatisfactory, then further disciplinary action can be taken. But more often, following up gives you an opportunity to compliment your employee on the solution he or she came up with. "People should also be recognized when they do something well, not only when they do badly," says Latour. Communicating with your employees about their performance on an ongoing basis will create an open working environment, and maintain respect between management and staff.

Read other pointers on How To contribute to your business success!

© 2004 Corinna vanGerwen

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