A Positive Approach To Employee Performance Improvement Through Discipline

Smoothing the Consequences of Miscounduct with Accountability

For seventy-five years, American organizations have used a fairly standardized procedure to handle familiar personnel problems such as absenteeism, poor performance, and other misconduct. This approach, usually called progressive discipline, provides for an increasingly serious series of penalties reprimands, warnings, suspensions without pay when employees fall out of step with the organization’s expectations. When problems arise, the job of the manager is to find the punishment that fits the crime.

But today, a growing number of companies are moving away from using a criminal-justice mentality for employee performance improvement through corrective action. They are abandoning traditional approaches that focus exclusively on punishment. Instead, they are adopting an approach of accountability – employees with unfavorable performance, conduct or attendance issues are required to take personal responsibility for their choice of behavior.

Discipline and Recognition

One immediate difference is that traditional, punishment-based discipline systems ignore the great majority of people who never create disciplinary problems. In a non-punitive, Discipline Without Punishment approach, there’s a new step added to the process a positive contact. Just as the policy is expected to resolve employee problems when they arise, it also makes clear that supervisors are expected to recognize employees when they perform well.

Recognizing good performance is no longer just good advice handed out in a management training class. Now it’s a formal policy requirement, a step of the organization’s overall discipline procedure.

Diffusing Problems

Supervisors continue to be responsible for beginning the correction process by employee coaching prior to formal disciplinary action. The exception is when the magnitude of the behavior warrants serious disciplinary action or even termination for a first offense.

In the early stages of disciplinary action, the Discipline Without Punishment approach replaces the familiar responses of verbal reprimands and written warnings with two comparable steps toward employee performance improvement: Reminder 1 and Reminder 2. Yes, they seem similar, but there’s more than mere semantic sleight-of-hand at work here.

Instead of being reprimanded for his mischief or warned about what will happen the next time he misbehaves, the employee is formally reminded of two important things. First, he’s reminded of the organization’s exact expectations of high-quality work, on-time performance, or whatever else has triggered the need for the discussion. And second, he is reminded that he has a responsibility for meeting the organization’s standards he must do what he’s being paid to do and he must do it well.

The Last Chance

The biggest change from the traditional, punishment-based approach comes at the final step of disciplinary action. When the employee is one step away from termination, a dramatic gesture is needed to forcefully drive home the message that the end is at hand one more time and you’re fired. But merely giving the employee a final written warning, or placing her on probation for some period of time, or creating a employee performance improvement plan aren’t powerful enough to clearly communicate the message Once more and you’re out! That’s why a disciplinary suspension from work is the best final step for a corrective action system.

Withholding Pay Does Not Work

traditionally, this disciplinary suspension has been without pay. The intent is that by depriving the employee of pay, he will come to his senses and return to work determined to do whatever is necessary to keep his job.

But the theory rarely works in practice. Employees who are placed on a three-day disciplinary suspension without pay don’t often return having seen the error of their ways and a commitment to excellent performance. They usually come back angry, all the organization has accomplished is creating a bitter employee.

There are other problems with using punishment as the basis for disciplinary action. Supervisors, many of whom are in the tricky position of being both on-the-job boss as well as off-the-job friend, often hesitate to place friends on an unpaid disciplinary suspension.

Because they know the family is also getting punished by the loss of pay, they may cut their people more slack and open themselves to charges of favoritism. And suspensions without pay just aren’t appropriate for exempt, knowledge-worker individuals.

A Paid Disciplinary Suspension

A Decision Making Leave, the final step of the responsibility-based Discipline Without Punishment process, provides all of the advantages of a disciplinary suspension as a final step and eliminates the drawbacks. This disciplinary suspension with a twist suspends the individual for one day and one day only.

On this day, the employee is required to make one of two choices: correct whatever problem brought him to this final step of the discipline process and make a commitment to fully acceptable performance in every area of his job in the future, or decide to quit and find greener employment pastures elsewhere.

Paying the employee for the day he’s away on decision day changes the supervisor’s role from adversary to coach. It demonstrates the organization’s good faith in wanting to see him change and return to fully acceptable performance, and is consistent with the values of almost every organization. By eliminating money as an issue, it doesn’t impact the family’s grocery budget and thus reduces the possibility of anger, hostility and even workplace violence.

Agreed Accountability

If the employee decides to remain with the organization and commits to fully acceptable performance in every area of the job (as almost all people placed on decision making leave do) and then doesn’t live up to his commitment, termination turns out to be much easier and guilt-free.

And should the employee challenge the termination in an EEOC complaint, unemployment hearing, or any other venue, the fact that the organization gave the person a day at its expense to decide whether he was willing to do then job he was being paid to do and the employee didn’t live up to his own commitment assures legal defensibility.

Traditional discipline approaches may indeed convince some problem employees to shape up, others to ship out. But punitive tactics can’t produce employees who are genuinely committed to the goals of the organization and the policies and rules by which they operate. We may be able to punish people into compliance, but we can not punish them into a commitment to employee performance improvement. And a culture of commitment is what today’s organizations really need.