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3 Tools to Replace Conventional Employee Discipline

A man drinking a coffee while holding his phone.

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  


I've written in the past about the Same Day Summary (a brief written summary of key takeaways from a recent meeting or discussion); the No-FEAR Confrontation (first Frame the topic of conversation, then go into active listening mode to Explore the other person's view; get them to Acknowledge that you understand him, and then Respond with your point of view); and the Crossroads Conversation (explain to an employee that there are only two paths: The employee makes the sustained, necessary change, or leaves the company).  

In this column, I will explain how to use these tools to handle employee problems in a far more effective and humane way than conventional "progressive" discipline. No more first warning, second warning, final warning nonsense. 

Case Study: An Attendance Problem 

"Bill" is a new hire. His shift begins at 8 a.m. On his second day at work, he arrives at 8:10 a.m. As his supervisor, you do a No-FEAR Confrontation. (Frame) "Bill, it's 8:10. Your shift begins at 8." (Launch the EAR) "What happened?" 

Bill responds with an excuse and an assurance that "it won't happen again." 

A week later, he arrives at 8:15 a.m. You have your second No-FEAR confrontation. (Frame) "Bill, it's 8:15. This is the second time you've been late in less than two weeks. And last time you assured me the problem wouldn't continue." (Launch the EAR) "What's going on?" 

Bill provides another excuse but adds a strong assurance that he's got the matter under control, and you can be confident in him going forward. You decide it's time for a Same Day Summary. "Thanks Bill, that's fine. I'm going to send you a short note confirming where things are. Let me know if I misstate anything."


To: Bill

From: You

Today's Date

Subject: Our discussion this morning about your attendance



This is a summary of our conversation. Please let me know if I missed anything.

  • I pointed out that you arrived today at 8:15 a.m.; that your shift begins at 8 a.m.; and that last Tuesday you arrived at 8:10 a.m., which we discussed at that time.
  • I emphasized that it's necessary you arrive here regularly at 8 a.m.
  • You gave me your assurance you will do what's necessary so that I can rely on you being here at your scheduled time.




For a couple of weeks, Bill does fine. But then he shows up one day at 8:20 a.m. At this point, you're ready to combine a No-FEAR Confrontation with a Crossroads Conversation. 

(Frame & Crossroads) "Bill, it's 8:20 a.m. There's now a serious question in my mind whether you can continue working here. I must have someone in your position at 8 a.m. every workday. If that's not something you're willing or able to do, I need to replace you and we should discuss your departure from the company." (Launch the EAR) "What are your thoughts?" 

Assuming Bill asks for one more opportunity, and you agree, you tee up the Same Day Summary: "OK, I'll send you a summary of this conversation."


To: Bill

From: You

Today's Date

Subject: Our discussion today about attendance



Here's a summary. Let me know if I missed or misstated anything.

  • After you arrived today at 8:20 a.m., I pointed out that this has become an ongoing problem, with this being your third incident since you began working here less than a month ago.
  • I said I cannot allow this problem to continue and that I was prepared to replace you with someone else.
  • You asked for one last opportunity to show you could make the necessary changes and be here every workday at 8 a.m., and you acknowledged that your next late day would be the last day of your employment.
  • I agreed to give you that last opportunity and expressed my hope that you're able to make the necessary changes and continue to be employed here.




Assuming Bill doesn't make the necessary changes and comes in late again, you matter-of-factly say: "Bill, it's 8:12 a.m. As we agreed, this means today's your last day here. Let me get HR involved with your transition." 

At this point, the last key step is making sure Bill's departure is handled with dignity and respect. He's not a bad employee or a bad person. It's simply the fact that Bill isn't compatible with the requirements of the job. As prominent national plaintiffs' employment law attorney David Sanford said, "My work would be cut in half if employers were kinder and smarter about how they let employees go." 

Goodbye Conventional Policies 

If you put these three tools to work, I guarantee you'll never return to conventional disciplinary policy and practice. You'll never again use the words "Verbal Counseling," "Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)," "Corrective Action," "Final Written Warning," "Last Chance Agreement," "up to and including termination of employment," etc. 

If you're a bit skeptical, that's OK. Perhaps you're thinking, "Jathan's scenario is too simplistic." Or, "How can we effectively administer this approach?" Or, "Jathan must not know how tough things are in California." 

Whatever your doubts, concerns or challenges, fire away. In a subsequent column, I'll address them. 

My bottom line: The HR profession took a wrong turn when it adopted conventional employee progressive discipline. It's time to right this wrong. 

Jathan Janove is a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year," author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017) and Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to


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