One of most terrifying experiences of my life was way back in 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 them.
It was a very dry summer, and I remember those long daily drives up and down 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 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 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 rear view mirror showed it was probably just as bad behind me as it was in front of me.
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 area, and as I was driving forward, thinking that this was not really 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 fires I would have most likely been fine. But no, I had to go forward, ignoring 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, more difficult problem is to handle.
This works with supervision especially well. Think of all of 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 issue, and it just didn't seem that big of a deal. But, naturally, it soon became a huge problem which rippled throughout 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 employee aside first time he noticed her coming back from lunch in that state, he may very well have prevented entire thing from happening in first place. However, since he didn't confront issue, it became "okay" and, of course, employee pushed 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 behavior, I would have taken 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 behavior stops, that's end of it.
You see, what's important is behavior. It does not matter one bit that employee drinks - as a boss that's not my problem. It does not matter what employee thinks about what I'm saying. The only thing that matters is 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 behavior repeats then 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 behavior, I might escalate it to a formal oral warning. If 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 issue needs to be handled cleanly, immediately and precisely. As a supervisor, my concern is about workplace and about quality of work being done. Ethically and legally that's all I should be worrying about.
When I was a young manager, one of mistakes that I made was to try and "soften blow". I would hesitate, perhaps let employee slide first time issue happened. During reprimand, I'd want to discuss 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 boundary's, they want to know exactly how far they can go before line is crossed.
The best way to handle a reprimand is:
- Make sure you've got all your facts straight before you deliver reprimand. Remember there is a difference between an investigation and a reprimand, and 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 reprimand.
- Do not deliver idle threats during a reprimand. Just inform person what will happen if behavior continues, and if it does, then follow through. There should be no need to "bluff" - you are presumably boss (otherwise why are you delivering reprimands) and have authority to do what you say you will do.