One of the most challenging things you take on as a manager is disciplining employees. You have to walk a fine line: If you’re too easy on them, you won’t be taken seriously, and if you come down too hard, you’ll have a lot of turnover.

Turnover is especially important to consider. It’s a job candidate’s market right now, meaning employees are hard to find in just about any line of work — but for the trades in particular. Given the time and training it takes to get a new person up to speed, you want to make sure you keep your turnover to a minimum.

I wish I could make it easy and tell you there’s one method that works better than anything else, but in all honesty, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to discipline and consequences. What I can do, however, is tell you what works for me.

MY SYSTEM

I use a points-based system with my employees. Much like the DMV demerit system for driving offenses, I keep an ongoing record of employee infractions, each of which has a point value. Some actions “cost” less others; for example, showing up late doesn’t incur as many points as a complete no-call-no-show.

Over a period of six months, if an employee reaches the maximum number of points, they lose their job. It’s as simple as that.

The key here is to develop your scoring strategy before you need it. Make a list of the most common misconduct you see among your team. Score each one accordingly and establish the point limit that they cannot exceed.

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In my case, I ranked each infraction on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being a “minor” mistake and 5 being a “major” mistake. Showing up to work late is something I’d consider a minor offense. Leaving the job site while the pool is draining is a major offense.

To put it another way, think of major offenses as actions that could damage your reputation or cost you a great deal of money. (For example, I have a friend who runs a service company, and his employee left the hose running, costing my friend an $800 water bill and a negative review. That would definitely qualify as a major offense.)

If my employees accrue 15 points over a six-month period, I let them go.

FIRST OFFENSE

No one is perfect, and you need to allow for minor mistakes. Say a customer complains about a tech who you know had a rough day, or maybe a tech accidentally overslept and started a couple of hours later than scheduled. In these cases, I issue a verbal warning.

I start by approaching the employee nonchalantly — your body language and tone here are important — and bringing up what happened that day, usually in the form of a joke. “Overslept, huh?” or “So I got an interesting call from Mr. Robinson today…” Then I listen.

Maybe your employee was late because their child had a surprise visit to the emergency room that day. Maybe they were a bit brusque on their route because they’re going through a rough patch in their personal life. Allow room for them to explain extenuating circumstances and be as understanding and accommodating as you can. It’s the right thing to do and your employees will appreciate you for it.

But let’s say your employee was rude for no reason, or they overslept because they didn’t set their alarm. In those cases, it’s still a verbal warning, but the conversation goes another way. I let them know this job is to be taken seriously and the infraction cannot be repeated. I mention that it’s an undocumented warning, which keeps them from getting too flustered.

Keep these conversations short, and try to have them at either the very beginning or end of the day. (I prefer the latter because they go home and think on our conversation a bit more.)

SECOND OFFENSE

So your employee messed up again. Now you need to crack out your point system, assign points as you see fit, and document it for your records.

Create a document that lists the date, offense and demerit points, along with places for you both to sign. (To save time, create a template so you only have to plug in the incident details.) Print a copy for yourself and one for them. This is really important because it creates a paper trail that can come in handy if you need to let someone go. (Fortunately for me, Florida is an at-will-employment state, so it’s not as important for me to keep track of, but still important.)

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I have a file for each of my employees. If they get written up, my copy goes in their file, which makes it easy for me to keep track of how many points they have accrued.

THIRD OFFENSE AND BEYOND

This is where things can get tricky if you don’t have a solid outline for your disciplining strategy. You need to have a structure for your points system, including the point limit and the length of each surveillance period. (As I mentioned earlier, mine is six months.)

So whenever an employee has a point-earning offense, I start by checking their history to see when their last offenses were. If this new incident puts them over the point limit, I let them go. It’s as easy as that. And I can do so confidently knowing I’ve warned him/her previously and have documentation to back myself up.

If they do not cross the limit, do another written warning. Gather the details, have both parties sign and file away.

OTHER TACTICS

As an owner, you get pulled in 1,000 different directions. I know I do. It’s impossible for me to remember everything my employees do.

Sometimes you might want to resort to other disciplinary methods, like withholding awards and perks. For example, I give my employees a gym membership as a perk because it’s cheap and keeps them healthy. For a major infraction, I might cancel their membership for a period of time (and in our disciplinary meeting, I would let them know I did so), and have them earn back their gym membership with good behavior. You could also ban them from taking a work truck home or taking overtime work.

At the end of the day you need to make sure that your employees stay in line and represent you to the best of their ability. If they don’t, and you’ve tried various forms of discipline, then it may be time to move on and find someone else who is a better fit for your business.

Erik Taylor is AQUA Contributor of AQUA Magazine.