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The Right Kind of Employee Discipline

George is an independent small business consultant and business owner with a mission to help entrepreneurs improve their management skills.

There are many approaches to changing employee behavior. Learn more about progressive discipline and why it works.

There are many approaches to changing employee behavior. Learn more about progressive discipline and why it works.

Know Your Rights as an Employee

It is often difficult to speak of discipline in this era of political correctness and condemnation of any perceived prejudicial treatment. Yet all organizations and institutions must establish rules and regulations that protect the rights and freedoms of others and assure efficient performance at every level of the organization. Setting no limits to personal freedom is a recipe for chaos and failure for the company and the individuals employed by it.

There is some tendency to look at groundbreaking companies like Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley giants and see what apparently seems like an environment where everyone is free to do what they want, as long as they get results. This type of culture has proven to be conducive to creative thinking. However, cursory looks are often deceiving and this is true of any organization.

Rules must form a part of every company's policy because without rules the organization can run astray. Accusations are often heaped on the new generation that they tend to be more self-centered and undisciplined in the work environment. This may be true, but it is also a matter of how discipline is practiced. If it is applied as a positive force to provide feedback, then it will serve as an appropriate motivational and growth incentive. This is what progressive company discipline should be all about.

Definition of Progressive Discipline

It is a process that blocks counterproductive behavior and promotes the ability of managers to effectively and consistently deal with its repercussions. This type of behavior is serious because it can translate into low morale and reduced productivity. Those that practice it can seriously infect other employees. The cost can be quite significant, with a direct impact on the bottom line.

Unfortunately, few companies make any attempt to understand the financial impact of undisciplined behavior. In order to achieve and consistently maintain good employee relations, all employees must understand the nature of the disciplinary process. They have to realize that if properly applied it can be of great benefit to all.

The Eight Inhibitors to Discipline

The reluctance to discipline can be attributed to eight commonly found factors that apply across the board to almost every company and institution. You can use this list to perform a self-evaluation or evaluate others on a scale of 1–5.

  1. Never Received Proper Training: Some supervisors have never been shown how to administer discipline effectively (progressively) and, therefore, lack the confidence to tackle problem individuals.
  2. Lack of Management Support: If the historical experience is that top management is non-supportive, or soft on discipline, then it will be applied in a haphazard manner. Setting up progressive discipline policy and rules should be a priority.
  3. Fear of Retaliation: There may have been cases of a violent backlash against a supervisor in the past. It is up to management to provide and promote an environment where everyone feels safe and secure. There should be no room for this kind of intimidation.
  4. Lack of Consistency: They are prone to ask themselves why they should take action when others don't seem to care or are intimidated.
  5. No Time: Performing a forensic on the evidence, interviewing the parties involved all take too much time and effort. This can be answered by breaking down the cost of counter-productive behavior.
  6. Reflected Guilt: There may be a feeling of guilt about disciplining someone else if the supervisor behaved in the same manner in the past. There has to be a recognition that their role changes when they are given responsibilities to others.
  7. Impact on Friendship: Disciplinary action may cause loss of friendship and alienation from members of the workgroup. Supervisors should look for respect, not friendship, by being consistent in the application of discipline.
  8. Fear of Conflict: Some people will avoid confronting a difficult situation, especially if it involves interpersonal conflict. Some people confuse being liked with being respected.

Causes and Effects of Counterproductive Behavior

Good management stresses a positive approach to discipline. Unfortunately, fear of punishment is still the most deployed deterrent by many managers. On the other hand, when employees understand and accept rules that they consider sensible and fair, they become self-regulating and reduce the negative impact of counterproductive behavior. This is when discipline becomes a constructive and positive force that enables people to work cooperatively. In companies where discipline is considered only in the narrow and punitive sense as a reaction, which punishes and corrects, it results in poor morale and affects productivity.

There are a number of negative behavior patterns that are seriously disruptive and destructive. Examples include insubordination, falsification of work records, fighting, theft, drinking, use of drugs, and sexual harassment. These require immediate attention by management and a strong response, which may include suspension or even termination after the completion of due process. There are other behaviors that are less prolific but nevertheless significant barriers to efficient performance:

Persistent Lateness

Persistent lateness and absenteeism by certain employees need to be closely monitored. Even when there is justification in some instances, chronic transgressions should be dealt with through progressive discipline. This is a highly prominent behavior that can be corrected through verbal and written feedback. It is often the cause of considerable productivity losses.

Poor Quality Work

Lack of discipline and neglect of rules often lead to poor quality. Undisciplined employees tend to be less concerned about the quality of work that they produce. Good management requires a strict monitoring program that can weed out this type of careless behavior. Below-standard quality can be identified by product rejection or by complaints from customers. The latter is more serious, since it may lead to extra costs and to permanent loss of future sales.

Carelessness Leading to Accidents

Research indicates the existence of a direct relationship between accidents and willful violations of safety standards or carelessness. It is, therefore, appropriate to include accidents in the list of counterproductive activities.

Pilfering or Otherwise Contributing to Inventory Loss

While some shrinkage of material and products can be attributed to obsolescence and normal waste, employee pilfering, carelessness, or faulty record-keeping is a significant contributor to inventory losses. This requires monitoring and the use of carefully administered discipline.

Sabotage, Neglect, and Abuse

Machines and equipment do wear out and they require preventive maintenance and repair. But they can also be subject to employee sabotage, neglect, or abuse. This extreme counter-productive behavior can be very costly, both in repair costs and in reduced levels of productivity and safety.

There are obviously more factors that contribute to inefficiency, but counterproductive behavior can represent a high cost to the company. All of these negative activities can be controlled or reduced through enlightened discipline. Its objective should be to create a work environment that maintains a high degree of morale and achieves the company's objectives, with a minimum of counter-productive behavior. Discipline should lead to employees knowing their jobs well and working cooperatively to carry out assignments and achieve the goals of the group in a timely manner.

How Progressive Discipline Works

Progressive discipline is defined as a procedure that utilizes an escalation in disciplinary warnings and actions that oppose counter-productive behavior—from verbal and written warnings to suspension and termination. This type of procedure meets arbitrator tests for due process and just cause and has successfully responded to all challenges in both arbitration and court proceedings. The purpose of progressive discipline is to correct the employee's behavior and restore the person's role as a productive member of the workgroup. It also acts as a reminder to other employees that they will be held accountable in the same way.

Progressive discipline is firmly based on reasonable rules that reflect the needs of the company to efficiently sell its products or services and to efficiently serve the customer. The rules must be discussed with employees to ensure that each employee understands them. The rules are applicable solely in the workplace. They do not restrict the lives of employees outside the company, except for matters that might adversely affect the reputation of the business. There must be absolute consistency in the enforcement of the rules. Infractions must be dealt with fairly and punishment is given uniformly.

The Six-Step Process to Disciplinary Problem Analysis

In analyzing discipline problems it is useful to realize that no two situations are exactly the same. People are complex and the situational variables are many. Therefore, the supervisor must carefully investigate and thoroughly consider seven key questions in arriving at the degree of disciplinary action to be taken:

  1. Is it a major infraction like drug abuse, which may necessitate temporary suspension from the workforce while a proper investigation is conducted?
  2. What was the time span between the current and other infractions caused by the same employee?
  3. Is the incident one of a recurring pattern or behavior?
  4. What precedence has the company set in handling similar situations?
  5. Has the work record of the employees been that of a reliable and cooperative worker?
  6. Are there unusual, and extenuating factors that have contributed to the situation?
  7. Are there clearly defined rules governing employee conduct communicated to employees, preferably in writing; and can all employees be reasonably expected to know them?

Just Application of Discipline

  • Adequate warning of the consequences of certain unacceptable conduct.
  • Completion of a thorough investigation before administering the discipline. Such an investigation must include written statements from the employee(s) involved and from all other parties, who may have witnessed the incident.
  • The investigation must be fair and objective.
  • It is not required that the evidence be conclusive or beyond reasonable doubt, except where alleged misconduct is of a criminal or serious nature that can damage the employee's reputation and seriously impair their chances for future employment.
  • The rules, orders, and penalties must be applied evenhandedly and without any discrimination. If enforcement has been lax in the past, management may not suddenly reverse itself and begin to crack down without having first warned employees of its intent.
  • The penalty must be reasonably related to the seriousness of the offense and the employee's past record. It is justified that a good historical employment record should incur a lighter response.
  • All employees must be judged by the same standards and the rules must apply equally to all. The rules must be clearly spelled out in the Employee Handbook.
  • All employees must be protected against unjust discipline and be permitted to challenge any company action that threatens to deprive them of their basic rights.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.