Auto Shop Coaching Blog

To Reprimand or Not—That Is the Question

From the beginning of time to mid-2020, if we had an employee not performing their duties well either in productivity, sales stats, or basic work ethic, we as employers let our employees know where their shortcomings were and to either “shape up or ship out!” But now, things are different. In the current employee-driven labor market, the fine line between what bad qualities we can tolerate in our business versus what we have to call out for poor performance is tricky. Why? The fear of losing someone and the unlikeliness we’ll find a replacement.

Where Is the Line?

I hear complaints of employee shortcomings time and time again from shop owners; they range from something seemingly correctable, like attendance issues, to long-term cancerous environment detractors. The question is: do we let these employees go uncounseled on what improvements they can and should make in fear of upsetting someone, or do we stick to our guns? I’m not saying walk around like a dictator and demand 100% every day without considering someone’s challenges in their personal lives or elsewhere. However, I advise that if we feel someone’s work ethic has decreased and they’re affecting the business, other employees have noticed it too, and they’re waiting on us to take corrective action.

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The key here is not to wait until you have a list of 18 shortcomings on a specific employee or bottle issues up internally to the point you want to explode. Instead, your employees should have an updated job description of their duties and responsibilities, which gets amended over time as the business changes. Hopefully, when onboarded, they signed off on an employee handbook that listed expectations of carrying themselves out professionally around customers and coworkers. If you don’t have job descriptions and a handbook in place, now’s a great time to start. Those documents set a precedent for what to expect in the years to come.

How To Respond

Back to when our “challenging” employee needs a response from us. Some situations require no interpretation on how to handle them — theft (of goods or time manipulation), intentionally damaging customers’ vehicles or company property, and the list goes on. For other items that aren’t as clear-cut, we have to implement a uniform plan across all employees. What does that mean? You can’t call out one employee for a specific shortcoming and then waive it on others. Not only does this make for a poor environment stemming from favoritism if we handle it poorly, but it could also put us in hot water legally. Decide your plan of action for improvements to be made. I used this rule: two “talks,” then a written reprimand concerning the subject, and then move on from there. It always “hits” different when someone has to sign a piece of paper calling them out on a shortcoming.

Next comes the balance of what we call out and what we leave alone. First and foremost, know your employees. Schedule weekly one-on-ones in an isolated area away from others, and don’t make it all business — make it a point to connect with them on their level. When you see a usually cheerful and smiling employee transition to dragging their feet with different body language, a one-on-one will reveal what’s happening in the background. It’s a mistake to call out a deficiency in work quality if a sudden personality change accompanies it. It would be evident that the two are related. Who knows, maybe we’ve done something to upset them, and now it’s tough for them to shake it off.

Training or Cancer?

If the issue is partially to blame on training disconnects, find out how to remedy it. Are we missing a clear path of next steps, who to reference, etc.? Blame could be on the employee’s end where they have a clear-cut game plan laid out but aren’t taking the time or initiative to carry it through. These circumstances call for the “talk and reprimand” tactic. Training should also be part of the onboarding process. New employees should know what they need to learn and do to move up to the next level progressively. Without this in written form, they’re solely going by what plan you laid out in the interview and hoping you stick to your word.

The toughest item to combat is the cancerous employee. We’ve let them stay because we’re used to them, they have a high experience level, and it’s tough finding replacements right now. All of these come at a price and, right now, you’re already mulling over what that price is. Even though your frustration with this employee is long withstanding and well-substantiated, we can’t let our emotions get the best of us. We have to approach them diplomatically and take the high road. Present what they’re doing that’s counterproductive to the business or environment, put a goal in place for the required change, and target a timeframe to get there. You need both the goal and timeframe to have success. Missing either of these will set you up for failure to get this employee to improve.

The Big Picture Game Plan

Our primary worry was on the back end of all these tactics — what if we upset them and they leave? Offset that worry by having a firm and ongoing practice of building your bench. You should always have ads running for the different positions your shop needs to function, keep your social media up-to-date by consistently posting employee and customer testimonials, and network, network, network.

In the end, if we feel like an employee’s behavior needs to be corrected, we hold the power to effect change. We can put a positive game plan in place, prevent emotions from getting the better of us, and have replacements ready if the need arises.

Non-ATI Members: For more tips on effectively managing your employees and growing your business, check out our shop owner events at

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Koole Bolina is a Performance Coach at ATI and has been in the automotive industry since 1998. Starting with a personal interest in automotive repairs, he continues to be part of car clubs, drag racing and keeping up with industry trends. Koole loves to positively influence those who want to do better, be better. If the industry we happen to do business in is the automotive field, that makes it all the better.