One of the most terrifying experiences of my life was way back
in the early 1970s. I spent 6 years of my late teens in a little
town called Lake Arrowhead in California. I was living with my
parents, working at night in a supermarket (the dairy manager),
going to college, and holding other odd jobs as I could find
It was a very dry summer, and I remember those long daily drives
up and down the mountain (a forty mile commute), without air
conditioning and miserable. I was, however, becoming a very
responsible young adult and took everything very seriously.
One day I was driving down the mountain to school as usual when
I drove past a fire. I should have stopped, but I was running
late and continued forward. Before long, there was another fire
beside the road, then another. A few minutes later, there were
fires all around me and it was getting hotter and hotter. I
thought about going back, but a glance in the rear view mirror
showed it was probably just as bad behind me as it was in front
Fortunately for me (because otherwise I might not be telling you
this story right now) some firemen noticed my predicament. They
had water dropping helicopters in the area, and as I was driving
forward, thinking that this was not really the time and place
that I wanted to die, I found myself covered with thousands of
gallons of water. I owe my life to those unknown firemen who
saved me that day long ago.
I learned something very important (besides a strong lesson that
I had a brain and I should probably start using it more often).
The time to deal with a problem is immediately. If I had stopped
when I first noticed the fires I would have most likely been
fine. But no, I had to go forward, ignoring the problem, until I
was in so deep that I would have been lost without help.
Now that I am an executive at a multi-billion dollar company, I
have applied this lesson over and over again. I use it every
single day, and it works very well.
The time to deal with any problem is as soon as you notice there
is a problem. The longer you wait, the more difficult the
problem is to handle.
This works with supervision especially well. Think of all of the
situations you've had at work, and think how easy they would
have been to solve it you had simply confronted them early on,
before they became significant.
Many years ago, a peer of mine supervised someone who came back
from lunch, how shall I say it, a little tipsy. The friend let
this behavior slide because, well, he had a little trouble
confronting the issue, and it just didn't seem that big of a
deal. But, naturally, it soon became a huge problem which
rippled throughout the company (well, it was a very small
company with only a dozen employees) and led directly to that
person being fired.
Now, if my friend had simply taken the employee aside the first
time he noticed her coming back from lunch in that state, he may
very well have prevented the entire thing from happening in the
first place. However, since he didn't confront the issue, it
became "okay" and, of course, the employee pushed the envelope
further and further until it could not be tolerated any more.
Now, delivering this kind of reprimand can be very difficult,
but it has to be done. What would I do now? Simple: as soon as I
noticed the behavior, I would have taken the employee aside
(always deliver reprimands in private) and just flat out told
her that coming back to work with a few drinks under her belt is
not acceptable. No emotion (that's very important), as little
discussion as possible, and, if the behavior stops, that's the
end of it.
You see, what's important is the behavior. It does not matter
one bit that the employee drinks - as a boss that's not my
problem. It does not matter what the employee thinks about what
I'm saying. The only thing that matters is the employee was
behaving in a manner which was not acceptable at work. So that's
all I would say.
Now, it's critical to understand that if the behavior repeats
then the next level of reprimand needs to be done immediately.
So if on Monday Ann came back to work from lunch drunk and I
talked with her about it, then on Tuesday she repeated the
behavior, I might escalate it to a formal oral warning. If the
behavior repeated on Wednesday, then it might get up to a
written warning. And on Thursday, she might get suspended for a
day. And if it happened again, she might even get fired.
The point is the issue needs to be handled cleanly, immediately
and precisely. As a supervisor, my concern is about the
workplace and about the quality of the work being done.
Ethically and legally that's all I should be worrying about.
When I was a young manager, one of the mistakes that I made was
to try and "soften the blow". I would hesitate, perhaps let the
employee slide the first time the issue happened. During the
reprimand, I'd want to discuss the problem, get their viewpoint
and make sure they were okay.
Now I've changed and I've realized that employees (myself
included) want to know the boundary's, they want to know exactly
how far they can go before the line is crossed.
The best way to handle a reprimand is:
- Make sure you've got all your facts straight before you
deliver the reprimand. Remember there is a difference between an
investigation and a reprimand, and the two should never be
mixed. If you are investigating, say so and ask your questions.
If you are delivering a reprimand, again, say so and deliver it.
- Do not ever deliver reprimands based upon rumor or hearsay.
Always check your facts BEFORE delivering the reprimand.
- Do not deliver idle threats during a reprimand. Just inform
the person what will happen if the behavior continues, and if it
does, then follow through. There should be no need to "bluff" -
you are presumably the boss (otherwise why are you delivering
reprimands) and have the authority to do what you say you will
- Base your reprimand on production, company policy and the law.
For example, if you find out a young man who works for you is
visiting strip clubs on Saturday evening (outside of work),
well, it's really none of your business (as a boss). It might
become your business if he started bringing your customers to
the same clubs ...
- Don't play games. You are the boss, just be the boss.
- Stay ethical yourself. It's pretty silly for a boss to be
delivering a reprimand to someone about drinking on the job if,
say, he's doing cocaine in the back room each night before going
- Deliver the reprimand as soon as possible. The longer you
wait, the worse the situation is going to get. Remember, in this
universe, things tend to get worse if they are left unhandled,
- Keep your cool and be as unemotional as possible. Remember,
your goal is to correct a behavior, not belittle a person or
make them feel bad (or even good for that matter) or anything
like that. You simply want to tell them something needs to be
corrected and you want them to correct it.
- The correction should be immediate. For example, if the
employee comes in an hour late on Monday and you tell them to
come in on time from now on, and on Tuesday they are late again,
then up the ante and deliver a stronger, more formal reprimand.
It's usually not a good idea to give someone "some time" to fix
a problem or correct their behavior.
- Don't necessarily start off "hard", especially if the employee
is normally doing good work. You can start off with a question:
for example, "I noticed you've been taking a two hour lunch the
last three days, what's up with that?" If the employee has a
valid reason, well, so be it. Otherwise, tell him it's not
- Modify your "hardness" to the employees productivity.
Productive employees should always get far more slack than
non-productive ones. If, for example, a traditionally difficult
employee was late for work I'd probably start off the reprimand
with a blunt statement "work begins at 9am and you need to be in
at 9am". On the other hand, a productive employee might get a
"hey, I noticed you are coming in late - what's up with that?"
- An exception to the above advice, however, is any kind of
harassment. An employee has a right to expect a safe work
environment. At the first sign of any kind of racial, sexual,
religious or similar harassment, you MUST immediately send the
whole matter over to your personnel department. Believe me, you
want to handle these kinds of issues fast - and you want your
personnel department dealing with them. For example, if a female
employee tells you (or you find out) that she's being sexually
harassed, then don't even question her any further - get her
sitting down in front of the appropriate person in personnel NOW
(or do whatever your company policy says to do - to the letter).
Let's say, for example, that you are in a meeting and you
notice "George" give a "more than friendly pat" to "Tina" on the
way out. Or perhaps, in the same meeting, you observe "Sam" make
a racial slur about Arabs to an Arab employee. Report these
IMMEDIATELY, regardless of whether or not you supervise these
people. There is NO PLACE IN THE WORKPLACE for this kind of
- Treat everyone the same. Let's say, for example, that you are
not particularly fond of Martians, but you happen to have a
Martian working for you. Treat the person as you would any other
person and ignore his green skin. The point is simple. Outside
of work you, the boss, can be as prejudiced as you want. At
work, you have to treat them all the same, regardless of what
you think. And, by the way, that's the law (at least it's the
law in the United States).
- Don't buckle to their excuses and emotions (unless backed by
facts). If you tell the person he cannot come back to work
drunk, then don't fall for the tears and sad-story about how
stressful work is and how they need to relax or something during
lunch. Sure, work is stressful, but getting drunk at lunch and
spending the rest of the day being silly and unproductive is
still not appropriate.
- On the other hand, don't be a complete hard case. Let's say
Sam is late for work and you take him aside and tell him it's
not appropriate. Sam tells you, well, his mother is sick and he
has to deal with her in the morning. Now you have solid facts
and you can change to match the situation. Work with Sam to come
up with an appropriate solution. Perhaps he needs to come into
work at 10am and leave at 7pm for a month?
- Be aware of the law before you deliver reprimands, as you
investigate, and while you are delivering the reprimand. For
example, say Jane's productivity has been falling off and you
investigate. You talk to her and find out she has asthma, and
she has trouble working because the air conditioner is throwing
dust into her face. Well, there are laws about Americans with
Disabilities, and you must make a reasonable effort to make it
possible for her to work. Period. So, if you find this out, the
reprimand must change into a "what can we do to make it possible
for you to be productive" meeting. It may be that you can
salvage a good employee simply by adding a filter to the air
conditioning for a few hundred dollars!
The point is very simple. You are the boss - act like it. If you
find out someone is doing something wrong, then deal with it -