November 13, 2019

How to Manage Staff Discipline in Your Café


People visit cafés for their coffee, but whether they’ll stay comes down to the service they’ll receive. 

Having the right staff in your café is critical for making sure customers return. So, it can be a major problem if a team member is underperforming, not meeting standards of conduct, or continually absent.

In most cases, you’ll be able to resolve issues and maintain discipline through effective management and training. 

However, it may sometimes be necessary to take disciplinary action against a staff member or even terminate their contract. 

Read on to learn why discipline is important and how to manage it in your café.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Mantener la Disciplina Del Personal en tu Tienda de Café

All it takes is one employee to negatively impact your café’s smooth running system. Credit: Academia do Café

Why Discipline Matters

A weak or unruly employee can adversely impact your café in various ways. 

For Diana Patiño, owner of the Café Kumo coffee chain in Mexico City, “it’s super expensive to have an underperforming member”. She explains that her café “sells a lifestyle, not just coffee”. “If the customer feels uncomfortable, then they won’t come back,” she says.

She also notes that underperformance is “contagious” and can have a damaging effect on your work environment and company culture. For example, other team members may realise they can “get money doing nothing”. Alternately, they could become disillusioned and decide to quit, draining your team of good members.

Julia Souza, manager at Academia do Café in Belo Horizonte, is also mindful of team cohesion. She tells me that everyone working in your café “has to be on the same page” and “be able to communicate to your customers what your values are”. 

The two main values at her café, for example, are the quality of the coffee and customer experience. If an employee doesn’t understand this, then they “might do a lousy job”, which will drive customers to the exit.

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From brewing coffee to interacting with customers, discipline affects every aspect of your business. Credit: Café Kumo 

Common Discipline Issues to Watch Out For

1. Underperformance

An underperforming employee is one that’s not doing their job to the required standard. This may necessarily not be an issue of conduct. They may be trying their best but are still unable to meet your expectations. 

Examples of this include:

  • Preparing, extracting, and brewing coffee incorrectly
  • Not taking inventory or replenishing items
  • Leaving dining areas dirty and allowing rubbish to pile up
  • Not updating signage or displays

2. Poor Service

This is delivering service which doesn’t meet customers’ expectations or needs (and is unlikely to generate repeat business). 

Examples of poor service:

  • Displaying a bad attitude, such as being unwelcoming or rude
  • Being slow to serve customers or inattentive to their needs
  • Getting orders wrong
  • Making mistakes with the bill
  • Providing wrong information or not answering questions accurately

3. Misconduct

This covers unacceptable behaviours ranging from minor infractions to gross misconduct. 

Examples of misconduct include:

  • Poor timekeeping, such as consistently being late for work
  • Ignoring reasonable instructions from management
  • Unauthorised absences
  • Misusing equipment
  • Breaching criminal law, such as stealing supplies
  • Harming a colleague or customer (deliberately or accidentally)
  • Being physically or verbally abusive
  • Discriminating against someone because of age, disability, race, religion, or sexual orientation
  • Breaching health and safety rules

Diana stresses that you need to be alert to anything that negatively impacts the customer or undermines your trust in the employee. 

She tells me, “everything at the bar comes with discipline: discipline on cleaning processes, discipline on extraction processes, and discipline on closing [the till].” If the coffee isn’t prepared correctly, or any of the above isn’t up to scratch, she says that the customer “maybe won’t come back”. 

Keeping your customers happy goes beyond how your staff members prepare them coffee. Credit: Academia do Café

Managing Workplace Discipline: A Practical Guide

There are various disciplinary strategies for you to take inspiration from to help manage performance and behaviour in your café. Three common types are preventive, supportive, and corrective. There are also progressive disciplinary procedures and counselling support. 

Here’s how you can implement these strategies when dealing with common disciplinary issues in your café. 

Preventing Disciplinary Issues 

In order to prevent disciplinary issues from occurring in the first place, pre-empt performance and behavioural issues by setting your rules and expectations in writing.

Diana and Julia both agree that this is essential for maintaining discipline. As Diana explains, “in order to give sanctions you need to know…the workflow. If you don’t know the workflow you can’t be bossy about it”. 

Your rules and procedures should be clear, specific, and cover the consequences for not reaching the required standards. Ensure that the rules are known and understood by your team to give them the best chance of being followed.

Another key way you can prevent poor performance in the first place is to reward positive performance. This can be done by conducting regular evaluations so you and your employee can reflect on their development. 

Here, you should recognise their hard work as well as their failures. Encourage them to formulate an action plan for improvement, setting goals that are ‘SMART’: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

According to Brian Sullivan of Sandler Training, positive discipline works because it reinforces good behaviour and shows that you value the employee. 

Addressing Distraction And Boredom

Having an employee get bored or distracted on the job happens more commonly than you think. It usually occurs with employees who have been with your café for a long time, or those undertaking repetitive tasks. 

Supportive discipline encourages employees to exercise self-discipline using subtle hints and body language in contrast to reprimands and penalties. It’s most effective for when you sense misbehaviour creeping into your workforce and you want to prevent it from escalating.

If you notice distraction or boredom, check on them and ask them how they’re getting along. Often your presence will be enough for them to refocus. They may also benefit from different duties or extra responsibilities to keep them stimulated, so they feel that they’re progressing. 

Diana finds it helpful for her employees to see a career pathway in her company. She explains: “it’s important that the other baristas see that if you do everything good you can grow with us”.

Julia tells me that “incentives work more than penalties” because “staff get motivated to reach their goals along with the company and show commitment”. 

Finding additional work for an employee to do (such as restocking shelves) can prevent boredom. Credit: Academia do Café

Addressing Poor Performance

Sometimes, preventive and supportive measures fail, and you need to intervene by instructing them to improve. 

When this occurs, make sure you start with reasonable instructions, communicated via an informal, quiet word.

If the problem progresses, arrange another meeting where you adopt an assertive, rather than an aggressive approach, so they don’t feel singled out for unfair treatment. Express yourself clearly and openly without raising your voice, treat their point of view with respect, and focus on finding a solution.

It’s important that your criticisms are fair, constructive, and professional. They must be consistently applied and non-discriminatory. Issues should be raised and dealt with promptly and you should aim for an accurate and balanced view of the facts. 

Addressing a Lack of Improvement

If other measures fail, you’ll need to alert an employee to the fact that improvement is needed for them to stay employed, while giving them a chance to improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, then you’ll have the evidence and justification to terminate their contract. The process will go as follows:

  1. Tell employees how to correct their behaviour, offering training, guidance, or support
  2. Provide a warning. Outline the next steps if improvements are not made
  3. Decide on the sanction (for example, changing their duties, penalties, or dismissal)
  4. Allow them the opportunity to appeal
  5. Terminate their contract

For fairness, allow them to share their side of the story or appeal against the decision. Creating a formal record with witness statements to corroborate facts will help you to exercise discipline fairly and justify disciplinary measures. As it’s a relatively harsh form of discipline, it’s best reserved for serious offences.

Julia warns that progressive discipline will only work “if you really see a staff member wanting to be part of a team and learning”. 

Address issues with your staff away from customers, in a private setting. Credit: Café Kumo 

Addressing an External Issue 

Life happens, and often an employee’s poor performance may be the result of a personal problem. When this occurs, the usual disciplinary measures won’t help. Allowing them access to short-term counselling can be mutually beneficial.

There is growing evidence for the efficacy of counselling, particularly on reducing absences due to sickness (in some organisations by up to 50%) and improving productivity within organisations.

Workplace counselling works by providing a safe environment for an employee to discuss issues that are affecting them. A counsellor will listen to them empathetically, offer alternative perspectives on their problems, and help to facilitate a positive outcome. 

Because of their independence and specialist training, they’ll be able to support your employee in ways that you can’t. Its why it’s important that they’re a member of a professional association (e.g. the BACP in the UK).

Addressing Termination

If you have exhausted all other options, you will have no choice but to terminate the employee’s contract.

Before you do so, make sure you are well versed in your country’s employment laws and rights. To dismiss someone fairly you’ll need to follow the correct procedural steps and contractual obligations.

Ensure that you have all relevant information ready, such as information regarding their final pay, pay for any holiday they didn’t take, or pay in lieu of notice (if they’re not going to be working their full notice).

Deliver the news in private. Keep it short, relevant, and direct, so that there is no room for ambiguity or conflict. 

If asked for it, you must also provide a fair and accurate reference. This works both ways. The ex-employee can challenge this if they think it’s unfair. But their new employer could sue you if you don’t mention something about the employee that later causes them problems.

Barista working behind the espresso machine. Credit: David Charles Schuett

Key Takeaways

Disciplinary action isn’t the easiest task you’ll face as café owner or manager. However, with the right standards of conduct and performance – as well as preventive, supportive, and positive discipline measures – you can create a workplace where both you and your employees can work, secure in your expectations of each other. 

Enjoyed this? Then read How to Motivate Your Baristas & Keep Them Engaged

Featured photo: Nick Hillier 

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