When Do I Coach, Discipline (Counsel) or Fire?

There’s no doubt that when your employees are happy and engaged you experience better business results. There’s also no doubt that employees can become disengaged.

Do you know how to best handle an unhappy employee who is not performing up to par? This article gives you guidance to address behaviors and performance that can be destructive to your team as well as strategies to address these issues in a fair and consistent way.

A study by Towers Watson1 shows that highly engaged employees miss fewer days of work due to illness and identify more closely with the company’s products and services.

Engagement declines when employees are not given the tools to succeed, face incivility in the workplace and/or believe that their supervisors and managers are not leaders. Many times it is easy to identify who is performing poorly, has a poor attitude or is disengaged. What’s more challenging is doing everything practical to engage the employee and change the relationship.

Have a Formal Process

When handling a disengaged employee, do not coach or discipline randomly; have a written policy. The policy should broadly outline the progression from discipline to termination, listing items or situations that would lead to termination. You can build some flexibility into the written policy, but avoid discrimination toward employees in addressing behavior and performance issues. Although it may seem that an unwritten policy gives employers more flexibility, your employees may not consider an unwritten policy fair.

Before you decide whether to coach or discipline a disengaged employee, ask yourself these questions:

  • How were duties and expectations communicated to employee?
  • If written, does employee have a copy? Has the employee indicated his or her understanding of the duties and expectations?
  • If unwritten, consider writing up the position description (as suggested in the sidebar) so you can definitively set expectations and record discussions and next steps.
  • What kinds of conversations or meetings were held regarding performance issues? What was discussed; what was decided; what follow-up occurred?

After you consider these questions you can better decide whether you need to coach or discipline.

When Is Coaching Appropriate?

Coaching is for clarification and education. Employers often think they have explained everything, but the employee may not agree. Having a third party (a trainer or other team member) evaluate the situation is also a good idea. Ask yourself:

  • Does the employee need specific information to complete tasks or contribute more fully?
  • Does the employee need to expand a specific skill?
  • Are performance expectations unclear or not defined?
  • Is the usually dependable employee suddenly showing behavioral problems (coming in late or appearing stressed, overwhelmed or distracted)?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, coaching may be the first step to remedy the situation.

If coaching is the best decision, meet with anyone who has been involved with training the employee. According to the book Smart Questions: The Essential Strategy for Successful Managers by Dorothy Leeds, you should ask yourself: What do I want this person to know or do as a result of our meeting and future training? What is the best way to give the additional training or information? Who is the best person to carry out this training? How can I reinforce the training and what follow-up is needed?

Discipline: Verbal and Written Warnings

Discipline actions are appropriate if you need to revisit the issues addressed in coaching after identifying and delivering what was needed for improvement. Disciplining an employee is also warranted if you have talked to the employee about the performance, skills or experiences required of the position but there is limited or no improvement. If the employee has exhibited behavior or performance issues in areas such as safety violations, harassment, illegal or unethical behaviors, discipline actions are appropriate.

A verbal warning would normally be the first step in addressing issues after coaching. However, if a behavior needs to stop immediately, such as harassment or illegal behavior, or if the employee was previously counseled and received a verbal warning but no change is seen, you should document through a written warning.


Termination is a natural progression from previous written warnings or a result of investigation of unsafe, illegal or unethical actions taken by the employee.

Before you terminate, review the following due process checklist2:

  • Performance/behavior standard has been established and communicated to the employee
  • Performance or behavior discrepancy has been identified and persuasive evidence of the employees’ culpability or negligence has been obtained
  • The employee is informed that his or her performance and/or behavior do not meet standards
  • The employee is given an opportunity to present his or her viewpoint
  • Corrective action is imposed that is fair and consistent with similarly situated employees
  • Communication of expected standards is repeated
  • The consequences of failing to meet expected standards are communicated

Never terminate an employee on the spot. Investigate even for the most egregious behaviors (such as theft or harassment). The employee should be directed to leave (forfeiting any company equipment, keys, etc.), told the matter will be investigated and the approximate time frame for when he or she will be notified of resolution. Consult a professional on laws regarding suspension with or without pay.

Investigate immediately.

Other things you may need to prepare for when terminating an employee include:

  • Return of company equipment (and a process for what happens if company items are not returned)
  • Access to passwords for company equipment (computers, etc.) and other company proprietary and confidential information
  • Determine when the last paycheck should be sent, any accrued vacation to be paid out, retirement plan options for rollover/distribution and COBRA (if applicable).

Before termination, consult the experts, including human resource personnel, your attorney and CPA to be aware of federal and state laws and potential legal issues.

Start With Good a Job Description »

This article is for informative purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.

Mary Dunlap, CFPÒ, of Mary Dunlap Consulting, helps financial planning firms attract, develop and retain the best people for their teams. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management. Contact her at mary@marydunlapconsulting.com


1 Driving Business Results Through Continuous Engagement, Watson/Wyatt 2008/2009 WorkUSA Survey Report (www.watsonwyatt.com/research/pdfs/2008-US-0232.pdf).

2 “A Practical Guide to Managing the Corrective Action Process,” Michael J. Voigt, SPHR,

Society for Human Resource Management online; 11/1/2003.