Decision-Making Leaves: Dramatic Performance Turnarounds without a Lot of Drama

by on June 9, 2014

One of the greatest workplace challenges to supervisors and managers lies in turning around workers when their conduct or behavior consistently disappoints. A decision-making leave, also known as a “day of contemplation,” could be just what the doctor ordered. Maybe they’re early career workers who don’t value the opportunity your company is offering them, or maybe they’ve been working for your organization for 20 years and suddenly have developed an attitude problem or entitlement mentality that makes them difficult to deal with. A decision-making leave may snap these people back into reality and make them realize how negatively they’re coming across—without you, the employer, having to play the bad guy. decisionmakingfeatureDecision-making leaves typically come into play in scenarios like this:

  • An earlier career worker (e.g., Millennial) demonstrates an entitlement mentality and consistently irritates others but hasn’t been formally disciplined yet.
  • A long-tenured employee is due a greater amount of workplace due process because of her tenure, and you want to add a decision-making leave to the individual’s final written warning as a way of impressing upon her that her position is now in immediate jeopardy of being lost.
  • A problematic employee consistently “flies just under the radar screen” in terms of breaching a formal company policy but always seem to push things “right to the line” before backing off—thereby avoiding formal progressive discipline but upsetting everyone around her in the process.

In the first case, you may not want to formally discipline the junior worker because he may not realize how he’s coming across—or you may feel that formal corrective action might come across as too heavy-handed under the circumstances. In the second case, your goal in providing this once-in-a-career benefit to a longer-term employee will be to help the individual understand the severity of the situation and also to protect your organization legally. (After all, the “three strikes and you’re out” method of workplace due process doesn’t necessarily work as well for employees who have worked for you for decades—courts may reasonably rule that you owed them more notice than a few simple documented warnings.) And in the third example above, you’ll want to break the persistent track record that a problematic employee continues to demonstrate by getting him to assume responsibility for the problem at hand.

What Exactly is a Decision-Making Leave and How Does It Work?

First, a definition: A “decision-making leave” or “day of contemplation” is a paid day off where an employee causing lots of grief is granted the opportunity to rethink his commitment to working at your company. Unlike a formal suspension, it isn’t necessarily a step in your company’s documented progressive disciplinary process. Also unlike a traditional suspension, the employee’s pay is not docked for the time away from work. The worker actually gets paid to stay home for a day with pay and mull over whether working for your company is the right long-term career move for him. If this sounds like too lenient a strategy that lets the worker “benefit from being bad,” so to speak, don’t be too quick to judge how effective this tool can actually work in the workplace. Here’s why: Adult learning theory will tell you that when you treat people like adults, they will typically respond in kind. Unlike formal discipline, which tends to punish workers formally for substandard job performance or inappropriate workplace conduct, decision-making leaves are much more subtle. More important, they don’t negatively impact the worker’s take-home pay, so there’s no element of resentment toward the employer or embarrassment for having to explain to a spouse or family member why the paycheck is less that particular week. This element of holding people accountable without issuing corrective action or negatively impacting their pay tends to trigger a guilt response rather than an anger response. Anger is external, and if you, the big bad employer, discipline them and deduct their wages for any reason, they’ll become angry and self-justify that you’re the cause the problem, the Goliath to their David, the unilateral, punitive decision-maker hurting their career. On the other hand, guilt is internal—as a human emotion, it forces people to look inward and see themselves more honestly and objectively. And that’s the ultimate way to resolve conduct and attitude problems in the workplace: by helping workers look internally and introspectively at whether they want to recommit to the organization or resign.

What Does the Discussion Sound Like?

More often than not, the events that will typically trigger the need for a decision-making leave revolve around employee conduct (as opposed to performance or attendance). In most cases, you, the supervisor, will want the individual’s behavior to change, not only for your and for your staff’s sake but for the good of the individual as well. In our first example above with the early career worker, you could introduce the concept of the decision-making leave before initiating any formal corrective like this:

“Mark, we’ve had a number of conversations and ‘coaching sessions,’ if you will, discussing some of the perception problems that might exist in terms of your behavior and conduct. We initially addressed your over-mentioning your frustration with our organization being ‘cheap’ and not paying fairly, which made some of your coworkers feel uncomfortable and prompted them to come and speak with me. Then we discussed your tardiness and, following that, your demonstrations of frustration that were evidenced by remarks like, ‘Who’s running this asylum?’ and ‘They’ve got to be kidding—Someone needs a Management 101 class around here.’”

“At this point I’m issuing you a formal written warning because I don’t feel like you’re taking this seriously, and your conduct is irritating to both your coworkers and me. I’m also going to place you on what we call a decision-making leave for a day because this is your first job out of grad school, and I’m truly hoping to help you turn around this predicament that you’re finding yourself in. I’ll explain how that works. First of all, today is Tuesday, and tomorrow I’m going to ask you stay home. I’m paying you for the day tomorrow, so you don’t have to worry about your paycheck being impacted, and I want you to know that this is a once-in-a-career benefit that you should use to your advantage.

“While you’re at home, I want you to give some serious thought as to whether you really want to work here or not. If you come back to work on Thursday morning and tell me that you’d rather resign and look for work elsewhere, I’ll be totally supportive of your decision. You can tender your formal resignation, no harm – no foul, and there won’t be any hard feelings. But if you come back to work on Thursday and tell me that you really want to keep your job with us, then you’ll have one additional assignment while you’re away from work tomorrow . . .

“Now remember that I’m paying you for the day, so here’s your homework: If you choose to return to work on Thursday morning with the intention of keeping your job, you’ll need to prepare a letter for me convincing me that you assume full and total responsibility for the perception problem that exists in terms of your conduct and behavior. You’ll need to convince me in writing that you recognize why there may be a perception problem and again convince me in writing that the problem will be fixed from this point forward and that we’ll never have to have this type of discussion again.

I’ll hold onto that letter – keeping it outside of your personnel file for now – but with a clear understanding that if you violate the terms of your own agreement and commitment, then your signed document will be attached to any formal corrective action that may come your way in the future. In fact, depending on the nature of the offense at that future point in time, there may not be any additional corrective action: you may simply end up firing yourself on the spot and putting an immediate end to your career with us. I’m considering this a very serious exercise and something that could be an incredibly important turnaround point in your career development. Now tell me what questions, issues, or concerns you have about this decision-making leave that you’ll be taking tomorrow and why you think I may be taking this step with you right now . . .”

The value of this paid leave is that it forces the individual to be introspective and to engage in self-critical insight without the traditional trappings of formal progressive discipline. The worker won’t walk away thinking, “I can’t believe my boss gave me a written warning and is docking my pay. She’s a terrible supervisor . . .” It’s much more about, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting a day off to consider whether I want to continue working here or resign. I’m shocked that she’d accept my resignation when I’m back on Thursday morning and that she’d be supportive of my leaving the company. Ouch, I guess I’d better be good, and although I don’t like any of this, I respect how she’s handling it.” See the immediate paradigm shift in the employee’s thought process? The value proposition of decision-making leaves is that they elevate employees in the process by empowering them to take control back of the situation. And the hands-off nature of the exercise removes any semblance of judgment, replacing it with an objective, no-nonsense standard that the employee completely manages. In short, it’s not about the company or the supervisor at all—it’s strictly about the employee’s willingness to reinvent himself in light of these issues being formally brought to his attention. Even if this intervention doesn’t work and the employee must be terminated nevertheless, you and your company win. You’ll demonstrate your reasonableness and caring as a responsible organizational leader, and your company gains the advantage of creating a record that will minimize legal scrutiny should this ever turn into a wrongful termination or constructive discharge claim. In essence, you’ll have shifted the paradigm away from “irresponsible company did little to proactively rehabilitate a good worker with temporary performance problems” to “responsible corporate citizen went out of its way to help proactively rehabilitate a worker and communicate the severity of the problem as well as future expectations but employee refused to respond responsibly.” Either way—as a thoughtful and caring front-line leader or as a legally sensitive organization trying to minimize potential liability—the company wins. This decision-making leave strategy is a low profile, low drama type of employee intervention strategy that speaks volumes in its subtlety. As a tool in your management toolbox, it may be just the fix necessary to help others see things your way, keep them out of harm’s way, and protect your company all at the same time.

Special Note and For More Information . . .

If your employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, then an unpaid “suspension” may be part of your company’s formal progressive disciplinary process, so adding a paid leave to an unpaid leave may not be necessary or make much sense. In any case, don’t expect the union or an arbitrator to recognize this day of contemplation as a replacement for any formal step(s) in the disciplinary process outlined in the union contract. Further, decision-making leaves are generally rare and should only be used in situations where warranted (as in our three examples above). The goal is not to make a decision-making leave part of your regular corrective action process where, for example, no one gets terminated without a decision-making leave first. Used on a case-by-case basis that’s situation specific, however, this tool can do wonders for turning around employees with attitude problems and/or otherwise protecting your company from the legal liability associated with terminating longer-term workers. For more information on decision-making leaves and days of contemplation, see Paul Falcone’s 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems (AMACOM Books). As always, we’d love to hear from you, so please contribute to the conversation below and post your feedback about this article or your experiences using decision-making leaves in the workplace! If you have any comments or feedback regarding this article and/or the topic of decision-making leaves, please kindly fill out the form below. We value your ideas and feedback. Thanks.

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