Disciplining Farm Employees

by: Chris Zoller, Extension Educator, ANR

A farm manager recently discussed with me concerns he was having with an employee and wanted suggestions for disciplining his employee.  Following is an article written by Dr. Bernie Erven, Professor Emeritus and OSU Extension Specialist, that describes ways to effectively discipline employees.

Discipline is an unpleasant responsibility. Doing it poorly only compounds the unpleasantness. Doing it well, on the other hand, reduces employer frustration, increases employee morale, makes the firing of an employee rare, and reduces the threat of legal action by disgruntled former employees.

Effective discipline can be made a management strength. Building a reputation as a fair but tough disciplinarian is a goal with many long-run benefits.

Three guidelines:

1. Take effective preventive action to promote employee self-discipline and to minimize the frequency of disciplinary action.

2. Use effective disciplinary techniques including the hot stove rule and progressive discipline.

3. Reward supervisors and employees for their efforts to minimize disciplinary action.

Using Effective Disciplinary Techniques

The preventive actions will assure that most of your employees will require little more than their own self-discipline. No matter how effective your preventive actions may be, however, you will sometimes need to discipline.

You may follow the general guidelines in the hot stove rule, use progressive discipline, or even resort to an often short-sighted approach – firing.

Hot Stove Rule

The rule is actually an analogy based on a person touching a hot stove. The analogy provides four discipline basics that are applicable to many situations.

Think about deciding to touch or not touch a hot stove. How does the hot stove influence your decision? The hot stove rule suggests four ways in which the hot stove is like good discipline:

1. Warning
The stove provides a warning. One can feel the heat and know that touching will burn. (Employees need to know their employer’s rules. The rules provide a warning.)

2. Consistent
The stove is consistent. One need not guess whether the hot stove will burn; it always burns. (Employees need to know that the rules will be enforced every time they are broken. Discipline will not be a surprise.)

3. Immediate
The stove burns immediately. No time is lost between the touch and the burn. (Employees should know that the discipline will come soon after each offense. Saving up discipline problems until the next performance review or until the supervisor is less busy means the discipline will be less effective.)

4. Impersonal
The stove is impersonal. The stove burns its owner in the same way it burns someone who encounters it by accident. (Good discipline treats each violator in the same way. The best employee, a family employee, and a problem employee receive the same fair treatment.)

Progressive Discipline

The intent of discipline is to change what a problem employee is or is not doing. A problem that occurs over and over is more difficult to deal with than a single-event problem.

For example, it is more difficult to deal with an employee who regularly refuses to use safety equipment than to deal with an employee who received a speeding ticket with a business truck for the first time in five years.

Changing problem behaviors that are repeated is akin to eliminating bad habits.  Changing a bad habit is difficult. One warning from a supervisor is unlikely to have much impact. Progressive discipline is designed to stick with the employee until there is no longer a problem.

Progressive discipline incorporates four steps, each more severe than the previous step:

1. Verbal warning

2. Written reprimand

3. Suspension

4. Discharge

Communication is the key to progressive discipline.

The communication’s primary objective is to help “save” a problem employee by letting him know there is a problem, what needs to be done to take care of the problem and by when it has to be done.

The secondary objective is to help build a defensible case for firing the problem employee.

Lack of communication sends an unintended message to the problem employee – your performance is okay even if you know that it really isn’t. Ignoring a problem rarely brings a satisfactory solution. Lack of communication assures that there will be neither a commitment by the employee to improve nor a plan on how the employee intends to improve.

The communication associated with discipline can be emotional for both the employer and employee. The employer should get all the facts before the discipline, communicate in private, stay calm, document what was said and resume normal relations with the employee after the discipline.

The steps in progressive discipline and their timing vary from employer to employer. Most, however, follow a basic pattern.To illustrate, an employer has a rule that all employees are to call in when they are going to have an unexpected absence from work. Not calling in four times in a 24 month period leads to automatic discharge. Each employee is allowed one freebee, an absence without calling in, every 24 months.

The first offense after the freebee triggers progressive discipline. Given this rule, progressive discipline might be applied as follows:

Verbal Warning
Terry, an employee, was absent without calling in. He had already used his freebee. Bob, Terry’s supervisor, talked with Terry his first morning back on the job. Bob confirmed that Terry had been absent and had not called in. He then explained the rule and asked Terry if he had any questions about the rule. Terry said the rule was clear. Bob reminded Terry that if he went 24 months without a repeat of the problem, his personnel file would be purged of any record of this first offense. Bob wrote a summary of the conversation for Terry’s personnel file.

Written warning
Seven months later, Terry again failed to call in. Bob gave him a written reprimand the following day. The written reprimand again explained the rule, reminded Terry that this was his second offense and explained the consequences of third and fourth violations of the rule during the next 17 months. Bob again asked if Terry had any questions about the rule.

He asked Terry to sign a statement saying that he had received the written reprimand. Bob reminded Terry that if he went 24 months without a repeat of the problem, his personnel file would be purged of any record of the two offenses.

Fourteen months later, Terry again failed to call in. Bob prepared a letter for Terry explaining that he was suspended from work without pay the following day for having had three offenses of the rule after his freebee. Again, Bob explained the rule and gave Terry opportunity to ask questions.

The letter made explicit that another offense within the next three months would cause automatic discharge. Bob again had Terry sign that he had received the letter and explained how he could have his file purged. Terry then went 24 months with no repeat of the problem and his file was purged of Bob’s written material about the three offenses after the freebee.

The employer’s intent is to never use progressive discipline but to stand ready to use it effectively when an employee’s behavior requires action. Once the progressive discipline process starts, the employer’s hope is that the employee will make further steps unnecessary because the problem has been corrected.

Discipline without punishment is an alternative to traditional progressive discipline. Progressive discipline without punishment makes change the employee’s responsibility and coaching the employer’s responsibility.

The oral warning in the first step makes clear to the employee that he has a responsibility to change his behavior.

The second step repeats the first step except the warning is in writing.

The third step includes a one day decision-making leave with pay. The employee is asked to decide whether he or she chooses to remain with the business and follow the rules or resign.

The fourth step is automatic discharge.

 If you have questions related to this topic or other farm employee management issues, please contact me.

 (Source: Dr. Bernie Erven, Professor Emeritus & Extension Specialist, The OhioStateUniversity)



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