My Boss Chewed Me Out— What do I do Now?
It sounds simple enough, we've all been there before. You make a mistake or you have a bad day, maybe even your boss is having a bad day, but you screw up and then you get chewed out.
Does it mean you're fired? Will you be getting a dreaded writeup or official reprimand? Most large companies follow a progressive discipline policy. How consistently and thoroughly such a policy is enforced, however, varies wildly between companies.
Large coprorations, or smaller ones with sharp legal teams, will establish clear internal discipline and termination policies to avoid a legal dustup in the event such policies need to be enforced.
But, as you might imagine, when you go down the pyramid from the policy makers to the day-to-day workers, things tend to get in the way. Namely people, with their inconvenient emotions, needs, and desires.
Lower level managers work closely with their employees, and the relationships of power and expectations of formality between employees and supervisors s are often unclear. So when an underling makes mistakes, the manager might make it personal, particularly if it's a high-stress deadline or important project.
So this is where we come to the chewing out portion of our discussion. Where and how does a thorough out-chewing fit into the disciplinary process, if at all? how do you respond? What do you do next? Should you apologize for screwing up or expect an apology from your supervisor? (hint: it's most likely the former)
The Progressive Discipline Process
The official discipline process, especially at a small company, isn't always made clear. So we want to give you an idea of what to expect and how to respond in a professional manner. As I mentioned, large companies will likely have a policy of progressive discipline in place. It's just like when you were in school— first you get a warning, sometimes official and sometimes unofficial, then you get a reprimand, a "write up." If the problem persists, you come down to the principal's office for a little come-to-Jesus talk. If after that there's still a problem, and if you're lucky, you get a suspension, if not, expulsion.
The Society for Human Resource Management has a handy outline for businesses and HR professionals to follow when putting together a disciplinary plan. Hit the link for a more detailed look, below we have a sort of generic outline for a hypothetical company discipline procedure.
I must add I'm tickled to see this line as part of SHRM's introduction— "Progressive discipline policies can be a useful tool for warding off potential unionization"— let it serve as a casual reminder that HR's purpose is to protect employer from employee. And possibly employee's lawyers.
Regardless it's a useful outline:
Step 1: Verbal Warning
The employee and their immediate supervisor get together to address the problem behavior. Sometimes the supervisor will prepare a written memo for the employee to sign, acknowledging their behavior and their commitment to correct it.
Step 2: Written Warning
You can see where/how steps one and two get muddled together. But this step
should be considered a serious, formal warning. Most of the time the supervisor's supervisor gets involved, intimating that this is a company or departmental problem that the brass should be aware of.
Step 3: Suspension
Some employers won't bother at all with this step, and remember, none of these procedures are required by law. Unless, that is, you have a specific contract with your company outlining disciplinary procedures. Here's what SHRM has to say "Depending on the seriousness of the infraction, the employee may be suspended without pay in full-day increments consistent with federal, state and local wage-and-hour employment laws" meaning that suspensions should be restricted to matters of workplace safety and seriously disruptive conduct.
Step 4: Recommendation for Termination
...of employment. Hopefully they won't recommend you to madame guillotine for skipping out on work. Still, this is serious business. And unless you have a strong union, you're probably an at-will employee, which means you most likely won't get the courtesy of a recommendation for termination, you'll just get the last part.
Most of the time a chewing out is just a chewing out. If you eat crow and work to address your behavior, that's probably the last you'll hear of it. But if the chewing-out is followed up by any of these steps, or if it sounds like part of this disciplinary process, then you need to be on your guard.
The first thing you should do when receiving a verbal brow-beating is nothing. It's difficult, and it goes against your first instinct, but you should let your boss have their say, don't interrupt them, and don't try to explain anything just yet. They're obviously mad at you, so they don't want to hear how it wasn't your fault (even if it's not).
When your supervisor has had his/her say, and they give you a look like "well..." then you can talk. If there are extenuating circumstances, briefly explain them, but make sure to outline how you are going to address your behavior.
That's all they want to hear, and it's all you should say for now. Later, maybe at the end of the day, maybe the next day, depending on their personality, you send an e-mail; one saying that even though you're not happy how it had to happen, you're glad that they pointed this flaw out and gave you the chance to address it, and then re-iterate how you will prevent this from happening in the future.
Outside the Progressive Discipline Policy
Unless you royally screwed up, this path should enable you to patch things up, and retain some of your dignity as a bonus. But the above, all of the above, really, assumes that your boss is a reasonable person. If your boss is a bully, or prone to outbursts, or lacks self-awareness, then you might have to jump through some hoops.
If that's the case, then you may want to refer to our blog about workplace bullies and how to deal with them, but there are certainly no easy solutions when someone with so much power over you is being totally unreasonable.
Hopefully, even if your boss is a bully, they'll stick to company guidelines on progressive discipline, then you may have the chance to explain yourself to a more reasonable superior. Still, when it comes down to it, the brass is more likely to believe your supervisor's word than your own. So it will benefit you to err on the contrite side.
If you don't have a copy of your company's employee handbook, then get one and go over the section on discipline. In employment cases, a company handbook can be viewed as a contract, even under at-will employment, and particularly in California where labor laws are strict.
An unreasonable boss who's always berating you can make your life miserable. But one who consistently singles you out for you punishment can be harassing you. Unfortunately, if your boss just doesn't like you, or for whatever reason they're holding a grudge against you, then there's not much you can do about it.
But if your boss singles you out for criticism more than any of your co-workers because of your race, age, or a disability, then they may be discriminating against you. Or if your boss threatens you because you plan to disclose illegal or unsafe business practices, then you may have legal recourse.
For the most part, though, there's not a whole lot you can do if your boss singles you out for criticism if there's no sign of bias, attempt at intimidation, or threat of retaliation. As much as you want to sue your boss, they're not doing anything explicitly against the law, you'll have to solve the problem with tact and diplomacy.