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Management Tools: Days of Contemplation

HR Magazine, February 2007Days of Contemplation

Have a problem employee? Give him a time-out to decide whether to come back fully committed or to move on.

One of the greatest challenges to supervisors and managers lies in turning around workers when their performance doesn’t rise to the level of a written warning but is detrimental nonetheless. A formal written warning will probably appear to be too heavy-handed, but when numerous verbal notifications don’t seem to get the results a manager desires in terms of altering a subordinate’s performance or conduct, there is another option: a once-in-a-career “decision-making leave.”

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.

If this sounds like too lenient a strategy that lets the worker “benefit from being bad,” so to speak, don’t be too quick to judge how effective this tool can actually be in the workplace. Here’s why: Adult learning theory will tell you that when you treat people like adults, they will respond in kind. 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.

“This element of holding people accountable without negatively impacting their personnel file or payroll tends to catch people off guard, because problem employees, like problem children, are often expecting negative attention for their bad behaviors,” says Tim Field, principal of The Field Consulting Group in Los Angeles. “When thrown into this new adult perspective of responsibility and accountability, workers tend to respond, well, like adults, and their assuming responsibility for the problem—or at least the perception of that problem—oftentimes works exceptionally effectively at shifting their mind-set and fixing the problem once and for all,” says Field.

How To Use Time-Outs

Decision-making leaves work best with two groups: first, with Generation Y types who are often freshly minted undergraduates under the age of 30 and a bit pampered and all-too-eager to voice their dissatisfaction about workplace matters; second, with long-term workers who, by their very tenure, are typically accorded extra steps of “workplace due process” before termination occurs.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve (fortunately or unfortunately) inherited a new employee in your unit who happens to be related to a C-suite executive. The upside clearly is that if all goes well between you and the young scion, then your career could skyrocket. The risk, of course, is that if there’s a constant, nagging voice in the uncle’s suite about your shortcomings as a manager, then this situation could certainly represent a career-limiting move in terms of your own internal progression. What’s for sure, though, is that your style of supervision will be the topic of conversation with your company’s executive around the dinner table.

Now let’s assume that “Junior” demonstrates a bit of an entitlement mentality and tends to name-drop his relationship to his uncle. At first it’s a bit awkward, but then it becomes downright uncomfortable. Worse, it’s soon followed by excessive tardiness, absenteeism and substandard work performance. Your first reaction is to speak with your supervisor and to human resources to make sure politically you’re not going to commit career suicide by facing this problem head-on. Assuming, though, that you’ve got a comfortable level of support from senior management to mentor and “redirect” this young pup, your numerous verbal conversations may require a documented next step.

Clearly, you don’t want to formally write up the executive’s nephew if you can avoid it, and, truth be told, you don’t really feel it’s necessary at this point. After all, he may be a bit spoiled and suffer from an entitlement mentality, but he has a number of positive attributes and you genuinely like him. You just want the behavior to change and the performance to improve, not only for your and for your staff’s sake but for the good of the individual as well.

Again, assuming you’ve got senior management’s buy-in to approach and handle this potentially career-damaging predicament, 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. We initially addressed your over-mentioning your relationship to our CEO [or CFO or CIO] to people you came in contact with, which, as you know now, intimidates some of your co-workers. Then we discussed your tardiness and, following that, your excessive absenteeism. Now I’m noticing that a number of projects are falling through the cracks, and some of my peers are starting to question how reliable you are and whether you are dependable.

“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, and I’ll explain how that works. 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 to return to work on Thursday morning with the intention of keeping your job, you’ll 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 onto 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. I’m considering this a very serious exercise and something that could be an incredibly important turnaround point in your career development. Now tell me what questions, issues or concerns you have about this decision-making leave you’ll be taking tomorrow.”

The value of this paid leave is that it forces the individual to be introspective and self-critical without the trappings of formal progressive discipline. The worker won’t walk away thinking, “I can’t believe my boss gave me a written warning and is docking my pay. She’s a terrible supervisor.” It’s much more about, “Wow, I guess she’s taking this pretty seriously. I know I won’t get a written warning or get my pay docked, which is good. I just can’t believe she said that she’d accept my resignation when I’m back on Thursday morning and that she’d be supportive of my leaving the company. Ouch, I guess I’d better be good, and I hope my uncle doesn’t find out about this!”

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.”

Time-Outs For Seasoned Workers

This technique works exceptionally effectively with longer-term employees as well. When you have a 20-year employee on your hands who has gone through the various steps of verbal, written and final written warnings, then one final breach of company performance standards may be enough to justify a termination for cause. On the other hand, you may feel uncomfortable pulling the trigger either because of loyalty to the individual or because you fear a lawsuit in light of his 20 years of continuous service (and acceptable performance appraisals) in comparison with three to six months of recent performance problems. In such cases, a day of contemplation may also make sense. Think of it this way: You’ll have exhausted your traditional means of three-step discipline and want to offer a nonpunitive alternative to ensure that the employee understands that his job is now in serious jeopardy. In your verbal meeting with the employee, you might explain the following in addition to the verbiage in the example above:

“Joe, if you decide to return on Thursday morning and confirm that you want to keep this job, I’m going to ask you to provide a bit more verbiage in the letter that you prepare on Wednesday while you’re home. I want you to explicitly write down (1) that you realize that your job is now in serious jeopardy of being lost and that this day of leave with pay is our way of telling you that and (2) we really want you to be successful with us, but we’re holding you fully accountable for the outcome here. We want you to succeed, but only you can demonstrate the willingness and the care necessary to get back on track. You don’t have to use my exact words, but will you acknowledge that for me in your letter?”

The value here clearly lies in the extra due process that you’re according this worker due to his long tenure with your company. Hopefully it will turn things around, but if it doesn’t and the worker must be terminated nonetheless, you’ll demonstrate your reasonableness and caring as an employer. “Again, the goal is to shift the paradigm away from ‘irresponsible company failed to communicate the graveness of the situation and did little to help the employee improve’ to ‘responsible corporate citizen did its duty in every way to help proactively rehabilitate the worker and communicate the severity of the problem, but employee refused to respond,’” says Field.

When Time-Outs Don’t Work

Decision-making leaves can be very effective, but 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

Managing your CEO’s family members, Generation Y-ers and longer-term employees (whom the law expects to be accorded extra steps of due process in accordance with their tenure) poses some of the trickiest and stickiest problems for managers and supervisors. 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 others see things your way, keep them out of harm’s way, and protect your company and your own career interests all at the same time.

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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