Don't let empathy prevent you from taking disciplinary action

Taking disciplinary action with your employee can be extremely difficult, particularly when the employee's problem is one that you may have experienced yourself. 

Dear Joan:
I am an office manager in a medium-sized company. Prior to this promotion one year ago, I worked with the women I now supervise. 

After my promotion, I had my share of resentment and jealousy from these women. They have gotten much better and I finally can say I'm beginning to enjoy supervision. 

My problem centers around one woman who was out on a maternity leave and who is now back. She has had many problems with her babysitter and has missed a lot of work. Because the problem is serious, I spoke to her about it, but she always has some new excuse. She knows I've had a few problems with sitters in the past myself (when I was her co-worker), so she always brings it up and expects me to understand her situation. She has also been spending a lot of time on personal phone calls to her sitter. 

So I know I must draw the line soon, but I am having some difficulty deciding how to do it. I know she will be very angry and resentful.

If you could give me any advice, I'd be most grateful. 

Supervising former peers can be a difficult task. As you struggle with your new role as the boss, your former co-workers must adjust also. 

Disciplining a former co-worker, for a problem you have shared, is going to take some special effort. 

You must first put some distance between her current problem and your former problem. This is her problem, not yours. She must take full responsibility for solving it. 

Feeling empathy for her situation and taking disciplinary action are not mutually exclusive. You can express empathy for her predicament, but your job, and hers, is to get the work done. 

It doesn't appear that your employee realizes how serious this problem has become. She must be told, in clear language, what the consequences are if she fails to resolve this problem. You may wish to follow the outline below when having the next discussion with this employee.


1.      Review previous discussions, including any solutions that were agreed upon and any action actually taken. Your tone of voice and manner should be that of adult to adult, not adult to child. Make sure you stick to facts and focus on the problem, not the person.

2.      Ask for the reason this problem is continuing and listen with understanding. This has been a trouble spot for you in the past. Prepare carefully. If she says, "You know how hard it is to find a good sitter," you can certainly respond with, "I understand how concerned you are about quality care for your child." Stay focused on her problem and feeling, not yours.

3.      Explain the effects her problem is having on you and the rest of your staff. As a new mother, it's understandable how she may have overlooked or minimized the effects of her absences and personal phone calls on others. It's important to be specific. Rather than saying, "We all must do our share," say, "When your phone is tied up, customers can't get through."

4.      Let your employee know the consequences of her continued behavior. (If that has already been done in your last discussion, outline the action you must take and why.) Unless there are new factors to consider -- the child has a serious illness, for example -- you must clearly describe the action you must take if the problem is not resolved.

If your employee becomes angry, remain calm. If she becomes emotional, hand her a box of tissues and wait for her to regain her composure. If she accuses you of being uncaring or unfair, calmly acknowledge her feelings "I'm sure I must seem that way to you, but I must try to be fair to all the people who work for me. Your frequent absences and long phone calls have affected all of us."

5.      Attempt to come up with specific actions the employee will take to solve her problem. You might say, "I know you can turn this situation around. Do you have any ideas for solving this problem?' If her solutions are the same ideas that haven't worked in the past, say, "You've had some difficulty doing that in the past. What will you do to make sure it's successful this time?"

6.      Set a follow up date to review progress. Choose a period of time that will allow your employee enough time to solve the problem. In this case, you may want to ask her how long she thinks it will take to straighten things out. Keep an informal log of all the discussions held with this employee on these matters.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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