When it comes to discipline, it’s a manager’s duty to be consistent. Allowing one breach of conduct can taint your authority and reputation, opening you up to a lack of respect that can lead to more problematic behavior. But as any parent can tell you, each individual responds differently to penalties and rewards, so there also needs to be a level of flexibility in the reward/discipline system you use.

Awarding all good behavior with the same benefit and chastising every offense with the same severity won’t get you the most out of the people you manage. Instead, put a bit more effort into choosing the most effective disciplinary action or bonus for each employee. 

Here are a few observations I’ve made over my 34 years as a field service technician that might help you determine the best course of action when it comes to your own team members.

Choose Your Rewards Wisely

I’m a firm believer that the carrot works infinitely better than the stick—after all, managers always prefer to give out a reward rather than dealing with bad behaviors—but not all awards will be valued equally. I had a friend who was awarded an extra day off for having perfect attendance throughout the year. A coworker told him, “That’s great! You got a day off that you have to schedule—I took a week’s worth of days off whenever I wanted them.” In a case like this, when employees can easily take time off work (and take advantage of the privilege), an extra day is hardly incentive enough to improve performance.

In my experience, giving out rewards such as money or gift cards for predetermined goals is more effective than things like plaques, dinners with the boss, or an extra day off. There’s a much better chance that those who don’t win will say to themselves, I could use some extra cash, too. I might have to try a little harder next quarter. Avoid specific gifts like tools or electronics because you never know what someone might already have or won’t care to own.

Spontaneously awarding outstanding achievements is a bit trickier. It’s important to point out when someone exceeds expectations but knowing the individual is important in this instance. You can never go wrong with money; however, not every manager has a budget for funding spontaneous recognition. So, this is actually a situation where awarding extra time off can be effective. 

Let’s say you have a tech who has a very busy lifestyle but for financial reasons always works every hour of overtime they can squeeze in. Calling up that tech at noon on a slow day and telling them to take the rest of the day off (without it affecting their 40 hours worked, so they still can claim overtime) will buy you a lot of loyalty.

You’ll find that others need only to be thanked publicly, if they’re the type who respond well to praise among their peers.

The Steady Hand of Discipline

I’ve seen many managers threaten disciplinary action for behaviors that are unbecoming of a field service technician, only to ignore those who fail to stop. Others warn of dire consequences yet fail to spell them out in order to keep their options open. In either case, the lack of action and consistency causes confusion and can encourage misbehavior. However, there is still room for flexibility in correction.

There should be a moving scale for infractions where the punishment fits the crime. To punish tardiness, a phone call warning for the first offense, followed by a face-to-face meeting for the second, and an official negative letter in their file for the third would be fair. Whereas going straight to probation to discipline an employee for yelling at a customer shows the troops you can be reasonable yet firm.

Favoritism Undermines All

Every manager has at least one favorite employee. In the field service world, it’s usually the techs who always say “yes” to staying late or coming in early, or those who can turn the most difficult customers around to sing the company’s praises. Even though these top performers usually deserve the lion’s share of awards, if they always win the prize, why should anyone else put forth the effort? Putting a limit, such as no one can win “Technician of the Month” two times in a row, is one way to keep up the enthusiasm for target awards.

One misstep I’ve seen many managers make is to let those favorite techs get away with behaviors that others on the team wouldn’t. There’s no easier way to lose respect than applying different standards to employees based on favoritism. When you lose the respect of your team, they’ll be less likely to go the extra mile when prompted.

Get to Know Your Techs

The best way to know how to reward and discipline each technician in the most effective manner is to spend time with them. Because techs are on their own the majority of the time, this is a challenge for the majority of field service managers. Field rides, where the manager goes out to the customer site during the repair, are better than not spending any time with a tech, but I don’t recommend them for building relationships early on. The tech will be uncomfortable and closed off.

Instead, take techs out individually for breakfast or lunch and find out what makes them tick. It will give you insight into the ideal ways to motivate and inspire them to perform at a higher level, and you might just avoid the disciplinary actions that no one likes to use.