Disciplining employees never easy

The keys: Remain calm. Be honest and straightforward, and be flexible as they respond.

Pam Needham, center, owner of Alicia’s Bridal Shoppe and The Formal House Tuxedos, here with staffers Lacey Olleson (left) and Jessie Simpson, said effective communication and honesty are the keys to disciplining employees — but that it’s never fun.

    It’s always an adventure when an employee needs to be disciplined, said Pam Needham, who owns both Alicia’s Bridal Shoppe and The Formal House Tuxedos in Bellingham. She said the experience often produces a wide range of emotions from all parties involved.
   “It can be (difficult),” said Needham, who has worked at the shop for the past 17 years. “It’s not a good time.”
   While employee discipline may be an uncomfortable part of the workplace landscape, how discipline is administered can play an important role not only in addressing employee problems, but making a business stronger.

Honesty, flexibility are keys
   Needham’s companies — which she runs with her husband, Mark — have been in business for nearly five decades in Whatcom County, she said.
   The company has between 10 and 15 employees (depending on the season) and does about 500 weddings per year, Needham estimated.
   “We’re one of the largest shops in the state, actually, as far as bridal wear and tuxedos go,” she said. The 4,000 tuxedos in The Formal House backroom testify to that, as does the county bridal show Alicia’s orchestrates every year.
   “I really like (the business),” Needham said. “It’s very challenging. It can be stressful, but I like stress, so that’s good.”
   Among the most important lessons she has learned running the business is the importance of being honest with employees.
   “I think when you first start out it’s always a little tough to be honest with people and to say something that might be considered a negative to someone because you don’t want to hurt their feelings,” said Needham, whose cheery demeanor and laughter are present throughout the interview. “And I think that’s a mistake, but it takes a while to learn to do that and to learn to do it correctly without tearing somebody down.”
   Honesty keeps mystery — and hopefully mistakes — at bay. However, honesty doesn’t equate to brutality, she said.
   “What you’re trying to accomplish is better behavior, not making someone feel insignificant,” she said. “When we hire people, we’re very upfront about saying, ‘This is the way we do things.’ We’re very honest, and our employees are very honest with each other. We encourage our employees to talk to each other and solve their own problems, rather than letting (issues) get to a fever pitch.”
   Achieving honesty between employer and employee is based on the ability to take constructive criticism as just that — constructive.
   “I want people to tell me that they can handle feedback and constructive criticism because you can’t get better without that,” said Needham, whose business has a three-month probationary period when employees are first hired that allows both the employer and employee to determine if the match is a good fit. The honesty can go the other way, too, she said, and employers should consider that their way is not the only way to do things.
   “We change things a lot around here based on employee suggestions,” Needham said. “If you arrive at the same solution that I want, and the end result is the same, then I’m okay with however you get there, just as long as it happens in a timely manner.”
   Trying to reinforce the positives as opposed to pushing the negatives is also a good idea whenever possible, Needham said.
   “I think everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses and they all do things a little differently,” she said. “No one is the same. Everybody arrives at a solution in a different way. If you allow your employees to do that, than you are better off.”
   Donna Sanders, co-owner of Cozy Corner Books and Coffee, said she agreed with Needham’s views. Pick and choose the right battles, she said.
   “I have my own personal hang-ups and hot spots,” she said. “And they may not really be issues that affect the business or clientele.”
   These issues may include work attire or speaking styles, she said.
   “They may be things that are not comfortable for me as a person, for example, but they truly don’t matter to the people who are being served by my company,” Sanders said.

Stay calm
   If an employer does get to the point where honesty is not producing the desired employee performance, discipline may be needed.
   “If you have a difficult situation, if you have someone that really needs discipline, and you’ve explained a couple of things prior to that and asked that this behavior change — like late arrival to work constantly — you need to definitely address that. If you have people that can’t get along with other people no matter what, even though you’ve explained to them that it’s important that a team atmosphere is what we’re after, then you have to say something.”
   If you do get to the point where the only option is discipline, tread firmly but lightly, Needham said.
   “You can get into some serious, knock-down, drag-out arguments with people that just cannot see that they are doing something that is not compatible with the business,” she said. “You don’t want somebody to feel bad about themselves, you just want to correct a behavior. It’s a behavior. I’m not trying to change you. I’m just trying to change your behavior at work. I don’t care what you do at home.”
   Staying calm is important. Needham said.
   “I never raise my voice, because if I get upset — as well as them being upset — then we’ve kind of defeated the whole purpose,” she said. “The things that I always want to remember if I’m having a pretty serious conversation with someone is: First, I’m going to write everything down that I need to address, and give examples of behavior and how I would have done it a little differently and how it affected other people and not just them.”
   An upset employee is not good for anyone involved, said Marvin Elsasser, owner of Marv’s Plumbing in Bellingham.
   “My theory is: I do not upset an employee. We sit down and talk about it if we do have a problem,” he said. “I want a happy crew.”
   Elsasser said his company rarely has issues when it comes to discipline.
   “We have all-journeyman plumbers that know what they are doing,” he said. “But occasionally you get something, so you just personally talk to an employee.”
   In addition, make sure to set clear expectations for the employee, as well as the repercussions if expectations are not met, Needham said.
   “I think you have to lay it all out, and I think you need to give it to them straight. And (it’s a good idea) to have it down on a piece of paper for yourself, as well as for your records,” she said. “I think probably 80 percent of the (disciplined employees) can turn it around.”
   Some issues can be addressed in a public manner, as to provide a positive example for other employees. Others should be done in private, one-on-one.
   “If you’ve gotten to the point where it needs to be addressed and it is pretty serious, I think it has to be a one-on-one, away from everybody else,” Needham said. “Degrading the employee in front of other people works if it is really small and its insignificant — and you just want everybody to change that behavior, not singling out someone — than it’s not a bad thing because then everybody can learn from it, and you’re not pin-pointing someone.”
   If communication doesn’t improve workplace behavior, the last resort is letting a worker go.
   “We’ve had to fire people, and they were probably way better off for it because they probably went on to find something that was much better-suited to their personality and their talents,” Needham said. “And you can’t tell that necessarily in an interview.”
   In the end, employers should treat employees the way they would want to be treated.
   “Don’t ever scream at your employees,” Needham said. “I have a problem with that. I wouldn’t want them to scream at me, and they do sometimes, but that doesn’t accomplish anything.”
   Discipline avoided is the best kind of discipline, Sanders said.
   “Employers need to really objectively and calmly evaluate whether or not discipline is needed. Sometimes our own personal issues become discipline issues for others, and we need to really be clear that it is a necessary and appropriate disciplinary action.”



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