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Viewpoint: Employee Discipline for the New Workplace

A woman is talking to a man in an office.

Progressive discipline, as practiced in most organizations, is legally defensible … and flawed in its logic. It is rooted in the decades-old mindset that treating people progressively worse will cause them to improve, or at least it will protect the organization from liability when they don't. 

Lawrence Stessin, a management professor at Hofstra University from 1958 to 1973, wrote this in his 1960 book Employee Discipline (BNA Inc.): "On a broader canvas, employee discipline is a process of control. It is a method for the maintenance of authority by management. … A reprimand, a layoff, or a discharge are the prerogatives which management uses as a control to keep (its) objectives in focus." 

Does that sound like a comment from one of your managers, supervisors, employees or even HR staff? It might not be your intent, but the way your process is managed is probably contributing to employees' perceiving you as controlling and authoritative. 

Punishment doesn't work with children, and it doesn't work with adults in the workplace. Employees who feel punished learn to get by, get out or get even. They comply with the rules rather than commit to your vision. 

Supervisors and managers find the process punishing, too. Discipline involves rules, guidelines and laws. In many organizations, discipline requires managers to have conversations with or obtain approvals from HR, the legal department or both.  

As a result, supervisors and managers avoid taking disciplinary action until they have no other choice. They then approach it as steps they must take to justify their decision to fire a recalcitrant employee rather than as a tool for working with the employee to improve. 

The most troublesome aspect of discipline, however, is that we talk about it as something that we do to people rather than as something to be developed and nurtured in people. 

The strong, vibrant culture you want relies on shared commitment to common goals, collaboration and accountability. Your organization needs people who are self-disciplined for excellence, not punished into compliance. 

You can't ignore due process, making your actions proportionate to the infraction or giving people more than one chance in all but the most egregious circumstances. You wouldn't want to even if you could. The cost to recruit, train and integrate a new person into your team is too high. Besides, brushing off these responsibilities is probably inconsistent with your core values. 

Another Way for Today's Workplace 

Today's workplace requires a collaborative approach to discipline that treats people as valued partners, promotes mutual respect and problem-solving, and reinforces accountability.

This is especially true with the Millennial employees who may make up most of your workforce. They have grown up in a world where they have been coached, encouraged and recognized for their efforts—even when the results were less than desired. Punishing them doesn't work.

You are, no doubt, communicating that belief in collaboration through your education and training sessions. All the best-in-class programs focus on engaging employees in a productive, problem-solving discussion that builds ownership. That isn't enough. 

Attending a training class is no guarantee that supervisors won't wait too long to address the problems that need to be solved. Disciplinary conversations are difficult. Constant reinforcement and accountability for early coaching can help, but they aren't enough. You will need systemic change in the way you do business to make your discipline system a positive one. These four actions will get you started:

  1. Focus on the conversation, not the disciplinary form or documentation. Most disciplinary conversations begin with the supervisor reviewing the disciplinary notice, asking for the employee's signature, and then asking if the employee understands the expectations and next steps. Respectful conversations—not words on a piece of paper—build commitment to improve behavior and performance. Documentation is necessary, but it shouldn't be the focus. Move the acknowledgment of your documentation until after the conversation. Doing so removes one more barrier to having an effective conversation. Also, there is an additional benefit in documenting what was said in the conversation, not just the infraction that was observed.
  2. Change the name of the disciplinary steps. Reprimands and warnings are for children. Plus, they carry negative baggage that can get in the way of problem-solving and commitment. Consider changing what you call disciplinary action to something more positive, such as "notice" or "conversation."
  3. Give people a way to clear their record. Sooner or later employees need to know that they have earned the right not to have a past mistake held against them for their entire employment. If an offense is so serious that it becomes part of an employee's permanent record, then perhaps you should have fired him or her rather than allowed continued employment. Establishing progressively long and consistent disciplinary active periods helps you maintain the legal requirement for progressive action while reinforcing that your goal is having the employee correct the problem.
  4. Stop unpaid suspensions. Nothing screams "I am punishing you!" like an unpaid disciplinary suspension. Organizations that use a one-day, paid, decision-making day find that it transfers the focus from what the organization is doing to the employee to what the employee is going to do to show that he or she wants to be a contributing member of the team. 

Engaged and accountable employees are crucial to your organization's success. The true test of your commitment to people and performance is your response when things go wrong. Isn't it time to make a change? 

Randy Pennington is author of Discipline in the Workplace, to be published by SHRM in 2019. He also wrote the award-winning book Make Change Work (Wiley, 2013) and is the creator of Positive Performance® Management. He is a Hall of Fame speaker and leading authority on helping organizations achieve positive results in a world of accelerating change. He has over 30 years of experience helping organizations design and implement nonpunitive discipline systems. 


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