Quite honestly, “discipline” or “correction” is not appropriate in the workplace. Employees are not children. And managers are not nuns in a 1940’s classroom. And yet bad things happen. And so what’s a manager to do?*
Sit down face to face with the employee as soon as possible after the incident or behavior.
DO NOT HAVE ANY ASSUMPTIONS. Be open that you may not have all the facts.
Set the intention. The intention is to learn – to find out why the incident occurred in the first place in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Do not come from a place of anger or frustration. Let go of the emotion. You’re here to learn (and to guide), not to get something off your chest, to give someone a piece of your mind or to let someone “have it.” If you come from a place of anger, the employee will automatically come from a defensive place – which may look like mirroring your aggression, or getting quiet and simply nodding one’s head in response, neither of which is productive. It also makes the conversation about you and your anger and deflects the employee’s need to take responsibility for what happened. Now it becomes about how you’re a jerk.
Energetically, come to the meeting as a stand for the employee’s success. In especially difficult instances, consider saying (only if genuine), “I know you’re better than this.”
Say what needs to be said – meaning while you don’t want to use a bat, you also don’t want to use a feather. Be clear, concise and candid. All while still being kind.
Define, as you understand it, the facts of what happened. And ask, “Is that accurate? Am I missing a piece?”
Come from a place of genuine curiosity – “Help me understand why you did X, said X, didn’t do X?” “What would motivate you to do X?” “You said you would do X, and you did Y – can you help me understand the disconnect?” Again the tone you use in asking these questions is imperative. These can be asked through gritted teeth and a furrowed brow, or with an open face that expresses a true desire to understand.
Be prepared that there’s a possibility that you or the company’s culture played a role in the incident. For example, if an employee hid a mistake from you, ask yourself (and the employee), why don’t they feel safe enough to bring a mistake to light? (If mistakes are treated as witch hunts, blame games or result in “discipline” and are not treated as learning opportunities, this may be why they are hidden.) Also, are there unwritten culture rules where this incident was acceptable in other instances?
When it comes to bad incidents, know that most employees have good intentions and did their best with the information they had. Know that when it comes to bad behavior, fear, shame or a desire to prove oneself as worthy are often core motivators.
Lastly, ask the employee what ideas they have for making “it” right. (Apologize, share with the team the mistake and what they learned, outline a new process, change their behavior…) It is here that you will witness either someone who is genuinely remorseful or is stubbornly righteous. In most cases, if you’ve followed the process, you will experience the former which allows for meaningful change in both the individual and the organization.
*This process is not for truly unacceptable, fire-able incidents/behavior in which you already have ALL the facts – in many of those cases, the necessary action is not a sit down meeting to “learn” but rather to fire the employee.