Leaders get the behaviors they exhibit and tolerate.
-Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done

The three strike rule should apply to more than just baseball; it should also be part of your employee policy. One of the hardest things for managers to do is give constructive criticism or ultimately fire someone for their attitude or inability to perform. One way to make this easier is to use a three-strike rule of progressive discipline. Using the three step process helps keep discipline consistent across your employee population, which is important in ensuring employees are aware of the consequences of poor behavior, negative performance, insubordination, etc. Consistency is also important to let employees know that the rules apply to everyone, no one is exempt.

Here is how this works:

Strike 1 – Verbal Warning
Strike 2 – Written Warning
Strike  3 – You’re Out! (Termination)

Now for a little more detail.

Strike 1:  This is the time for letting an employee know that a specific behavior is unacceptable in the workplace. It’s important at this step to make sure the employee does not feel attacked. This warning should be both specific and behavioral. The employee should be warned of the specific thing done that was unacceptable and be give a specific way to fix it or ensure it doesn’t happen in the future. For example, instead of saying: 

“I don’t like the way you handled that situation,”

Try saying…  

“Next time, when you answer a customer service call, it’s not appropriate to say, ‘What do you need?’ Please answer the call by saying  ‘Thanks for calling X Corp, my name is ___, how can I help you today?’  I have given everyone a script for these calls and expect all employees to follow that script. Do you understand? Do you have any questions?”   

The latter example lets the employee know the specific unacceptable act, the salutation for answering phone calls, and then gives specific directions for fixing the issue. Finally, the warning gives the employee an opportunity to ask any questions.  

Strike 2:  At this point, an employee has repeated a behavior they have already been warned is unacceptable, a pattern has begun to emerge.  Strike 2 is the time to give the employee a warning that is more serious and should be put in writing.  I have provided an example template for this below. The written warning lets the employee know that they have repeated an unacceptable behavior.  The written warning should specifically state that if the behavior is repeated, the employee will be terminated.  

Strike 3:  If an employee gets to strike 3, they have demonstrated disregard for your previous instructions or an inability/unwillingness to learn from past mistakes. The employee has been warned on two occasions, once in writing, that their behavior is unacceptable. Now, it’s time for the employee to part ways. This can be difficult, but it’s important. It lets your entire workforce know what that continuing unacceptable behaviors will not be tolerated.

Discipline and termination for violation of rules and values is generally seen as a positive action by other employees. More often than not, other employees are also aware of the unacceptable behavior being performed. Failing to address these situations may lead employees to think that the rules don’t apply, or that they only apply to certain people. Progressive discipline reinforces the rules and values for the entire workforce.   

A few important Notes:  This post focuses on bad and unacceptable behavior, but good behavior is also important to recognize and acknowledge. After the first one or two strikes, if you see improvement and a desire to get better, the employee should be commended. Reinforcing good behaviors is equally as important as stopping bad ones. Also, some behaviors and actions are so grievous as to warrant immediate termination. In situations of violence, harassment, and theft, to name a few, immediate termination is appropriate.

If you want to read further on this topic, I recommend “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High,” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.

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