Employee Discipline: the carrot or the stick?

In every workplace, managers have to deal with employees who violate one or more written or unwritten rules or otherwise fail to perform their job duties as expected. This is the most difficult part of being a manager, and that few relish the need to deal with it.

The process for management response is commonly referred to as the disciplinary policy, Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), or corrective action procedure. The objective is to either “fix” the problem employee or part company.

Whatever you call it, the process should include the following:

  • informing the employee of what you expect
  • fairness
  • consistency
  • including the employee in determining the plan for improvement, and
  • documenting your actions and decisions.

Your corrective action/disciplinary policy should be written to leave you the discretion to deal with each case as appropriate.  The typical progressive discipline process includes a verbal and/or written warning, a final warning and then termination of employment (some employers add a suspension step prior to termination, but I do not see the benefit to that; it just prolongs the process). The policy should state that any or all of these steps may be taken or not, depending on the situation.

Immediate termination may be called for, but only for grievous violations such as theft, violent behavior, violation of a ban on weapons in the workplace, etc. Otherwise, the employee should be given a chance to correct their behavior, and it is wise to involve them in the determination of an action plan for improvement, which will increase the chances of a successful turnaround. That can be most effectively done through a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). A PIP consists of

  • specifics regarding the unacceptable performance
  • Specific and Measurable objectives that are Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (otherwise known as SMART goals),
  • what management will do or provide to assist the employee in achieving these goals,
  • a timetable for further meetings with the employee, and
  • clearly stated consequences (i.e. disciplinary response) for not meeting the objectives of the plan (i.e. improvement to at least a satisfactory level of performance).

The organization’s disciplinary response should be appropriate and proportionate to the employee’s conduct. Ask yourself “Does the punishment fit the crime?” How would a jury of your peers feel about the fairness of the action taken? Is it consistent with actions taken with other employees in similar circumstances? Did you give the employee the opportunity to correct the problem (excluding situations where immediate termination is called for)? Also, take into account the employee’s history with the organization; is this the first misstep for them, or have there been ongoing issues with their behavior or performance.

It is important to treat employees as adults and fellow human beings. We’re not in the dark ages any longer. Be respectful, give them a chance to explain, don’t humiliate them, don’t get personal (“it’s business, not personal”), don’t degrade them or hold them up for public disgrace. Deal with them in the manner that you would expect from your manager.

In summary, I don’t see either the carrot or the stick as the solution.  I see the solution being a collaborative, interactive process with the goal of getting the employee back on track if possible. Hopefully, it becomes a win-win for all involved.

Published by Dave Waldorf

Former Human Resource and legal professional specializing in HR compliance advisory services. Finding my new life in Arizona with my wife of 43 years and our two shelties.

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