Managers Use Time-outs To Give Employees a Day To Reflect

By Paul Falcone Mar 3, 2008

A "decision-making leave" or "day of contemplation" is a paid day off where an employee showing lack of dedication to the job is granted the opportunity to rethink his commitment to working at your company. Unlike a formal suspension, it isn't necessarily a step in your company's documented progressive disciplinary process. Also unlike a traditional suspension, the employee's pay is not docked for the time away from work. The worker actually gets paid to stay home for a day and mull over whether working for your company is the right long-term career move for him.

Unlike formal discipline, which tends to punish workers formally for substandard job performance or inappropriate workplace conduct, decision-making leaves are much more subtle. More important, they don't negatively affect the worker's take-home pay, so there's no element of resentment toward the employer or embarrassment for having to explain to a spouse or family member why the paycheck is less that particular week.

How To Use Time-Outs

Introduce the concept of the decision-making leave before initiating any formal, written warnings like this: "Gary, we've had a number of conversations and 'coaching sessions,' if you will, discussing some of the perception problems that might exist in terms of your performance and conduct.

"I don't want to give you a formal written warning because I feel that may only de-motivate you. But I am going to place you on what we call a decision-making leave for a day. I'm going to ask you to stay home Wednesday with pay, so you don't have to worry about your paycheck being impacted. And I want you to know that this is a once-in-a-career benefit that you should use to your advantage.

"While you're at home, I want you to give some serious thought as to whether you really want to work here or not. If you come back to work on Thursday morning and tell me that you'd rather resign and look for work elsewhere, I'll be totally supportive of your decision. But if you come back to work on Thursday and tell me that you really want to keep your job, then you'll have one additional assignment while you're away from work tomorrow.

"Now remember that I'm paying you for the day, so here's your assignment: If you return to work on Thursday morning with the intention of keeping your job, you will need to prepare a letter for me convincing me that you assume full and total responsibility for the perception problem that exists in terms of both your performance and conduct. You will need to convince me in writing that you recognize why there may be a perception problem, that the problem will be fixed and that we'll never have to have these discussions again. I'll hold on to that letter—keeping it outside of your personnel file for now—but with a clear understanding that if you violate the terms of your own agreement and commitment, then you may end up firing yourself. Now tell me what questions, issues or concerns you have about this decision-making leave you will be taking tomorrow."

The value in this exercise is "in shifting the traditional disciplinary paradigm that a day of contemplation provides," says Field. "When workers are disciplined, they're angry, and anger is external, so the problem is someone else's fault. When they're held accountable without formal discipline, they're feeling guilty, and guilt is internal. That's always where you want to be when dealing with your subordinates because that's where problems get fixed once and for all."

When Time-Outs Don't Work

Giving an employee a day of contemplation may provide little value when the individual's performance problem has to do with excessive absenteeism. In essence, if the individual is having a difficult time getting to work every day, then giving her more time to spend at home to think about getting to work probably isn't necessary.

In addition, if your employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, then an unpaid "suspension" may be part of the formal progressive disciplinary process, so adding a paid leave to an unpaid leave may not be necessary or make much sense. In any case, don't expect the union or an arbitrator to recognize this day of contemplation as a replacement for any formal steps in the disciplinary process outlined in the union contract.

Less Drama

This decision-making leave strategy is a low-profile, low-drama type of employee intervention that speaks volumes in its subtlety.

As a tool in your management toolbox, it may be just the fix necessary to help raise an employee's performance and commitment to the organization—or to get rid of those who don't get the message.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five AMACOM books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews , The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book , 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire , and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination.

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© 2007 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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