Progressive discipline is rooted in the decades-old mindset that treating people progressively worse will cause them to improve, or at least protect the organization from liability when they don’t.
Management theory and practice of the past can best be stated in Lawrence Stessin’s 1960 book Employee Discipline. Stessin, a management professor of Hofstra University, wrote, “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 is the prerogative which management uses as a control to keep (its) objectives in focus.” Not entirely relegated to the past this comment may be heard today by a manager, supervisor, or even HR staff. Even if unintended, the way the process is managed can contribute to employees perceiving the employer as controlling and authoritative.
Punishment does not change behavior and it doesn’t work with adults in the workplace. Employees who feel punished respond by getting by, getting out, or getting even. Outwardly they may comply with the rules, but inwardly they remain uncommitted to company vision. Supervisors and managers also find the process punishing and avoid taking disciplinary action until they have no other choice. It becomes a series of steps they must take to justify their decision to fire an employee rather than as a tool for working with the employee to improve.
Positive performance management aims to maintain positive working relationships, and promote accountability. A strong, vibrant work culture relies on shared commitment to common goals and collaboration with people who are self-disciplined for excellence, not punished into compliance. Due process is not ignored but actions are proportionate to the infraction or giving more than one chance in all but the most egregious circumstances.
Today’s workplace requires a collaborative approach to discipline that treats employees as valued partners, promotes mutual respect and problem-solving, and reinforces accountability. Millennials, who may make up most of your workforce, have grown up in a world where they have been coached, encouraged, and recognized for their efforts, even when the results were less than favorable.
Education and training can foster partnership engaging employees in a productive, problem-solving discussion building ownership. Disciplinary conversations are difficult but constant reinforcement and accountability for early coaching can help. However, systematic change is necessary to make the disciplinary system a positive one. These four actions are a start:
- Focus on the conversation, not the disciplinary form or documentation. Documentation is necessary, but it should not be the focus. Respectful conversations build commitment to improve behavior and performance. Acknowledge documentation after the conversation to eliminate one more barrier to effective communication.
- Change the name of the disciplinary steps. Reprimands and warnings can carry negative baggage that can get in the way of problem-solving and commitment. Consider changing “disciplinary action” to something more positive, such as “notice” or “conversation.”
- Give people a way to clear their record. 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 their permanent record, then firing them is perhaps a better course than continued employment. Disciplinary action periods help maintain the legal requirement for progressive action while reinforcing your goal for the employee to correct the problem.
- Reconsider unpaid suspensions. An unpaid disciplinary suspension can convey, “I am punishing you!” 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 organizational success. The true test of our commitment to people and performance is the way we respond when things go wrong. Is it time to make a change?