Overhauling the ‘Corrective Action Plan’ by Paul Edwards

Overhauling the ‘Corrective Action Plan’ 

Use progressive corrective coaching to improve team performance and protect your practice


by Paul Edwards


Running a successful orthodontic practice means juggling countless tasks involving everything from patient care and continuing education to administration and employee management. So it makes sense that, for most practice owners, the idea of tossing another ball into the air is about as appealing as a tax audit.

But what if adding one unassuming little orb could help head off potential legal issues and ultimately save you time, money and headaches? And what if this same sphere could not only empower you and your employees but also afford the confidence that comes from knowing you have all of your regulatory ducks in a row? What if, by throwing a single, innocuous ball into the air, other more troublesome issues—poor employee performance, tardiness, bad attitudes, bad-fit employees and even legal liability—started to disappear? Suddenly you’d realize that by adding one more ball into the mix, you’re actually juggling less—not more.

Communication and documentation are key

Progressive corrective coaching (PCC) is this seemingly magical sphere. At its core, PCC is simply a cohesive communication and documentation program to guide verbal and written corrective interactions between your management team (which, if you are running a small practice, may just be you, or just you and your office manager) and your employees.

For many owners and managers, your practice’s current “corrective action plan” involves little more than haphazardly issuing individual corrective actions (e.g., verbal or written warnings) when employee problems arise. But, as HR veterans and employers who have been stung by employment lawsuits in the past know, you need a consistent, formalized strategy for dealing with employee behavior and performance issues—one that records all corrective actions as they occur.

I developed the PCC framework in 2006 in partnership with a team of experienced employment law attorneys specifically for owners of small-to-mid-sized dental practices who did not have the benefit of hiring fulltime HR experts to work on their teams. Where traditional guidance on corrective actions had been geared toward larger businesses—the kind with entire departments dedicated to HR—that guidance was being adopted by practice owners consistently in ways that could easily cause even minor oversights about legal nuance to turn into real liability for their businesses.

Even using the word plan, I realized, could box employers in to a legal corner when it came to addressing employee issues that came up from day to day. PCC was created as a response to other well-circulated models like “progressive corrective discipline” and standardized “corrective action plans” to both give employers the flexibility they needed when addressing behavioral and performance issues with their employees, and to build protections for their businesses that simply didn’t exist in other formats.

This type of ongoing effort makes it easier for you to guide your employees to improve their behavior or performance as needed, and also incorporates methodical documentation of your escalating attempts to help employees up to the point of termination, which then helps to minimize your practice’s legal risks. To help you wield this powerful tool, here’s a primer about why you need a corrective action program like PCC and how best to implement it for your practice.

A consistent process for feedback and guidance

All corrective actions—from informal verbal reprimands and admonishing comments to written warnings—need to be documented in one form or another.

Keeping careful records of your efforts to address problem behaviors with employees demonstrates that you have given an employee multiple opportunities to correct the issue at hand. Your notes also serve as a reminder to you when it comes time to make tough decisions. And, should you need to terminate employment because of those issues, you’ll have historical evidence of just cause, the specific reason(s) for ending the relationship should you need it, and proof that the termination wasn’t an illegal act of discrimination or retaliation.

In addition, the step-by-step process allows management to communicate expectations and corrective actions calmly and consistently over time, while providing employees with multiple opportunities for improvement. Providing regular, ongoing feedback instills confidence that you’re doing right by your practice and your employees, while your efforts to consistently document those corrections build legal protections for your practice along the way.

As a situation escalates, take another a step

Progressive corrective coaching involves communicating clear, fair, job-related expectations to your employees and ensuring that all corrective actions you issue are documented. Keep in mind that verbal and written warnings can carry the same weight, and every step in the process need not be completed in the exact order I’m about to describe. In fact, some employee behaviors might be so egregious that they warrant immediate termination or final written warnings. Still, this framework is helpful for addressing employee issues that may arise at your practice at any given time.

STEP 1: Set clear expectations.

Before employees can meet your expectations—and before you can hold them accountable for their performance and behavior—they must first know what your expectations for them are. Still, other common corrective action plans tend to skip this all-important step.

Make sure you have professionally drafted job descriptions and a compliant and well-written employee handbook in place that clearly outline the behaviors and tasks expected for each role within your practice. Remember, it takes specialized knowledge to write policies. You’ll also want to ensure that your employees have signed both documents to indicate that they have read and understood them.

Whenever you choose to administer a corrective action, review your expectations with the employee and outline how he or she might better meet those expectations moving forward. You might even ask for input on how he or she can do better.

STEP 2: Offer verbal coaching.

Often, the next step in the process is simply a verbal, but documented, conversation.

When an employee fails to meet a stated expectation, verbally explain the problem to the employee, clarify expectations and, if it makes sense to, outline the consequences should the situation not improve. At this point, communicating the consequences of inaction isn’t necessary, but it’s a critical part of written warnings.

After the conversation, document what was covered and date the exchange in the employee’s file, though the employee need not sign anything at this point. For this type of documentation and others, free software such as CEDR Solutions’ HR Vault simplifies the process by allowing you to easily add confidential, automatically time-stamped notes to employee files.

STEP 3: Provide a written warning.

If the issue persists or a new issue pops up that is more serious, it’s time to have a second, similar conversation. This should include a written communication that can also serve as a warning, often called a “corrective action form.” This document states the underperforming or unacceptable job-related behavior; the impact it has on the practice, clients, other employees, etc.; the expected corrections the employee must make; and the additional consequences to be implemented if the issue doesn’t improve.

This step adds an element of formality, as well as a legal record necessary to establish the legitimacy of your actions currently and in the future. Employees should then be asked to sign this form—an action that indicates receipt and acknowledgment but doesn’t necessarily signal agreement with the assessment.

STEP 4: Issue a final written warning.

A final written warning, while rare, can be issued if the employee fails to make the corrections requested. This document is similar to the first form, but it states that without sufficient improvement, the employment relationship likely will be terminated. Once again, the employee signs the document to verify its receipt.

STEP 5: Proceed with termination.

While there are instances of gross misconduct for which termination may be the first and only action available to an employer, termination happens only as the final step of PCC. However, before terminating employment, always assess the risks to the practice, including whether the employee is in a protected class or has participated in a protected activity, along with consideration of the existing documentation to support the lawful termination. If you’ve been following this process, your risks should be minimized.

Assuming you have access to good HR help and that you proceed with termination, provide a written letter stating the reasons for your action. Keep in mind that this letter requires careful thought and expertise (which is a secondary topic that could warrant a full article in itself). Done well and supported by documentation, a properly crafted termination letter can deter frivolous lawsuits and disarm opportunists looking for easy ways to extract settlements.

Apply equal enforcement about expectations

While a PCC program is relatively simple in theory, its success hinges on three factors: consistency, regularity and documentation. To retain its power and effectiveness, the program must be continually and equally enforced with all employees, all of the time. By doing so, you will reap the legal and financial benefits associated with a well-aligned team and employees will know what’s expected of them, as well as where they stand with regard to their performance. This means both you and your employees will have a stronger, happier and more productive relationship. To that end, here are several things to keep in mind as you execute a PCC program:

FIRR Real

Before you issue a corrective action, it helps to map out your written or verbal communication using what CEDR HR Solutions refers to as the FIRR Method, which stands for Facts, Impact, Reason and Request.

Facts: Use only facts—things you can see and hear—in your corrective actions to reduce the likelihood the employee will disagree or become defensive or resentful of your efforts.

Impact: Clearly explain how the employee’s actions have affected other employees, clients, the practice, etc.

Reason: Show the employee that you’re being reasonable, as opposed to argumentative. Explain that you believe the employee’s intentions are good and that he or she is capable of success. Model the professional tone you expect from the employee.

Request: Communicate the specific and measurable actions you want the employee to take to improve the situation.

  • Treat all employees the same. If you document the tardiness of one employee, for example, you must do so for all others. Also, ensure that each employee has a personal file where you can log these communications.
  • Limit written records to the facts and avoid emotions. Don’t let things go on too long or blow up and spin out of control. Start with conversations and establish the expectation that feedback—both positive and negative—is going to happen. At CEDR HR Solutions, we use a mnemonic called the FIRR Method (see “FIRR Real” sidebar). Focus on what the employee did or didn’t do, the impact of that behavior, the stated expectations of his or her position, your expectations for the future and the potential for fulfilling those expectations. Be specific, fair and brief, and refrain from comments that reference the employee’s age, gender, race, disability, marital status or other protected categories. Avoid comments such as, “Karen was a jerk in the meeting and was always late to work because of morning sickness.” Rather, aim for something like: “Karen rolled her eyes during the morning meeting and was more than 10 minutes late three times this week.”
  • Document everything to the best of your ability. Without consistent documentation, your effectiveness and legal protections go out the window. Include the date and the manager’s initials with all records.
As you can see, the process is fairly straightforward and merely requires a bit of initial administrative action, followed by continued execution. When this format is used regularly and consistently, feedback and expectation-setting need not be negative things. With minimal time and effort, you can both minimize your employment-related legal risks and create a better working environment for everyone at your practice.

Download a free corrective action form

To download a free progressive corrective coaching form from CEDR HR Solutions and/or to unlock CEDR’s HR Vault software free for your practice, go to cedrsolutions.com/townies.


Author Bio
Paul Edwards Paul Edwards is the CEO and founder of CEDR HR Solutions, a leading provider of on-demand HR support for dental practices of all sizes and specialties across the United States. With more than 25 years of experience as a manager and business owner, Edwards is well-known throughout the dental and health care communities for his expertise when it comes to helping owners and managers effectively solve HR problems. He provides regular HR guidance on his blog at cedrsolutions.com/blog.

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