In administering discipline, a supervisor should distinguish between discipline and punishment. Punishment is an unpleasant consequence given in response to undesirable behavior. Discipline, in contrast, is broader; it is a teaching process. The supervisor explains the significance and consequences of the employee’s behavior and then, if necessary, lets the employee experience those consequences.
The specific ways in which a supervisor applies these steps may be dictated by company policies or the union contract, if any. Thus, a supervisor must be familiar with all applicable policies and rules. These should include respecting the rights of employees in the discipline process. Employees’ rights include the following:
• The right to know job expectations and the consequences of not fulfilling those expectations.
• The right to receive consistent and predictable management action in response to violations of the rules.
• The right to receive fair discipline based on facts.
• The right to question management’s statement of the facts and to present a defense.
• The right to receive progressive discipline (described in the next section).
• The right to appeal a disciplinary action.
The Discipline Process
Before administering discipline in response to problem behavior, supervisors need to have a clear picture of the situation. They may observe the problem themselves, or someone may tell them about the problem. In either case, supervisors need to collect the facts before taking further action.
As soon as possible, a supervisor should meet with the employees involved and ask for each employee’s version of what happened. For example, a supervisor who believes that one of his or her employees is using the office telephone for excessive personal calls should not make hasty accusations or issue a general memo stating company policy about phone use. Rather, the supervisor should ask the employee directly and in private what his or her telephone conversations were about. In getting the employee’s version of a problem, a supervisor should use good listening practices and resist the temptation to get angry.
When a supervisor observes and understands the facts behind problem behavior, disciplining an employee occurs in as many as four steps: warnings, suspension, demotion, and dismissal (see Figure 12.5). This pattern of discipline is “progressive” in the sense that the steps progress from the least to the most severe action a supervisor can take. A warning is unpleasant to hear but fulfills the important purpose of informing employees about the consequences of their behavior before more punitive measures are taken. Suspension, demotion, and discharge are more upsetting to an employee because they hurt the employee in the pocketbook.
A warning may be either written or oral. Some organizations have a policy that calls for an oral warning followed by a written warning if performance does not improve. Both types of warning are designed to make sure that the employee understands the problem. A warning should contain the following information:
• What the problem behavior is.
• How the behavior affects the organization.
• How and when the employee’s behavior is expected to change.
• What actions will be taken if the employee’s behavior does not change.
Thus, a supervisor might say, “I have noticed that in the last two staff meetings, you have made hostile remarks. Not only have these disrupted the meetings, but they lead your co-workers to take you less seriously. I expect that you will refrain from such remarks in future meetings, or I will have to give you a suspension.” As in this example, the warning should be brief and to the point.
In the case of a written warning, it is wise practice to ask the employee to sign the warning, which documents that the first step in the discipline process took place. If the employee refuses to sign the warning, even with minor changes, the supervisor should note the employee’s refusal or call in someone (such as the supervisor’s manager) to witness the refusal.
A suspension is the requirement that an employee not come to work for a set period of time, during which the employee is not paid. The length of the suspension might run from one day to one month, depending on the seriousness of the problem. Suspensions are useful when the employee has been accused of something serious, such as stealing, and the supervisor needs time to investigate.
A demotion is the transfer of an employee to a job with less responsibility and usually lower pay. Sometimes a demotion is actually a relief for an employee, especially if the employee has been goofing off or performing poorly because the job was more than he or she could handle. In such a case, the employee might welcome returning to a job where he or she is competent. More often, however, a demotion leads to negative feelings—a punishment that continues for as long as the employee holds the lower-level job.
The permanent removal of an employee from a job is called dismissal, or termination or discharge. The organization cannot really regard dismissal as a success because it then has to recruit, hire, and train a new employee. Nevertheless, a supervisor sometimes must dismiss an employee who commits a serious offense or who will not respond to other forms of discipline. Occasionally an employee or supervisor may decide that correcting a problem is impossible, or at least too difficult or expensive. In addition to continued failure to correct problem behavior, dismissal may occur because an employee deliberately damages the organization’s property, fights on the job, or engages in dangerous practices (e.g., a railroad engineer who drinks on the job).
Dismissing an employee is never easy, but it is sometimes a necessary part of the job to ensure a positive work environment for the remaining employees. At Wire One Technologies, Ric Robbins had a sales representative who continuously sacrificed teamwork for personal gain. According to Robbins, a regional vice president, that employee would visit his colleagues’ offices and glance around, looking for clues to sales leads. The employee’s co-workers spent so much energy protecting themselves from the unethical employee that they couldn’t work effectively. Robbins had to fire the sales rep to preserve the team’s morale and performance.
Many organizations have policies requiring a supervisor to involve higherlevel management before dismissing an employee. Supervisors should be familiar with any such policy and follow it.
In following the steps in the discipline process, a supervisor should remember that the objective is to end the problem behavior. Asupervisor takes only as many steps as are necessary to bring about a change in behavior: The ultimate goal is to solve the problem without dismissing the employee.
Guidelines for Effective Discipline
When an employee is causing a problem—from tardiness to theft to lack of cooperation—the supervisor needs to act immediately. That is not always easy to do. Pointing out poor behavior and administering negative consequences are unpleasant tasks. However, by ignoring the situation, a supervisor is signaling that the problem is not serious. As a result, the problem gets worse. Seeing that the problem behavior leads to no consequences, an employee may increase it, and other employees may follow this example.
In contrast, when Kathleen R. Tibbs was an in-flight supervisor with Eastern Airlines, she faced up to the unpleasant task of disciplining an employee with unacceptable attendance. Tibbs had the employee suspended for seven days. Her action inspired the employee to address the personal problems that led to her poor attendance.
When discussing the problem with an employee, a supervisor should focus on learning about and resolving the issue at hand. This meeting is no time for namecalling or dredging up instances of past misbehavior. Nor is it generally useful for a supervisor to dwell on how patient or compassionate he or she has been. Instead, a supervisor should listen until he or she understands the problem and then begin discussing how to correct it in the future. Talking about behaviors instead of personalities helps the employee understand what is expected. For ideas on how to discuss problem behavior constructively, see the “Tips from the Firing Line” box.
Asupervisor should keep emotions in check. Although it is appropriate to convey sincere concern about the problem, a supervisor’s other feelings are largely irrelevant and can even stand in the way of a constructive discussion. When an employee breaks the rules or seems unwilling to do a good job, it is only natural for a supervisor to feel angry. The supervisor should get control over this anger before confronting the employee in order to be objective rather than hostile. Being calm and relaxed when administering discipline tells an employee that the supervisor is confident of what he or she is doing.
Discipline should be a private matter. The supervisor should not humiliate an employee by reprimanding the employee in front of other employees. Humiliation only breeds resentment and may actually increase problem behavior in the future.
A supervisor also should be consistent in administering discipline. One way to do this is to follow the four steps of the discipline process outlined previously. Also, a supervisor should respond to all instances of misbehavior rather than, for example, ignore a long-standing employee’s misdeeds while punishing a newcomer. At the same time, the seriousness of the response should be related to the seriousness of the problem. The policy for workplace violence or drug use would likely be immediate dismissal because of the danger involved. Likewise, Stater Bros. Markets, a grocery store chain, has a policy of immediately dismissing any employee who engages in theft or sells liquor to a minor lacking proper identification. The response to an occasion of tardiness would be less severe. The point is to have and follow a consistent policy for serious and minor problems. Even better, consistency should extend to praising and rewarding positive performance. The guidelines for effective discipline are summarized in Figure 12.6.
Documentation of Disciplinary Action
Employees who receive discipline sometimes respond by filing a grievance or suing the employer. To be able to justify his or her actions, a supervisor must have a record of the disciplinary actions taken and the basis for the discipline. These records may be needed to show that the actions were not discriminatory or against company policy. As noted previously, one type of disciplinary record is a signed copy of any written warning. In addition, other disciplinary actions should be recorded in the employee’s personnel file, as directed by the human resources department.
Supervisors often use past Performance Appraisals as documentation of the need for disciplinary action. However, this approach often backfires because many supervisors are reluctant to give negative evaluations. A performance appraisal that has an employee’s work recorded as average, adequate, or meeting only minimal standards does not support dismissal of that employee. This is why it is essential for the supervisor to give accurate performance appraisals.
Documentation is especially important when a supervisor must terminate an employee. Because the experience is so emotional, some former employees respond with a lawsuit. The employee’s file should show the steps the supervisor took leading up to the termination and a record of the specific behaviors that led the supervisor to dismiss the employee.
Careful documentation also is essential for organizations, which have many disciplinary rules and policies aimed at protecting employees from arbitrary or politically based actions by supervisors. These rules may have the unintended consequence of protecting problem employees from well-deserved discipline, unless the supervisor can fully document the problem behavior, preferably with witnesses. An example of just how challenging this process can be involves alleged abuses of residents at the Communities of Oakwood, a state-run home for mentally disabled persons. Of 15 employees charged with abuse in recent years, about half had previously received reprimands or suspensions for various misdeeds as severe as being intoxicated at work and changing patients’ prescriptions. Administrators at Oakwood must win the approval of a personnel board before they can dismiss such employees. This requirement protects the employees from being fired based on politics, but it also places a burden on supervisors to provide specific, supportable documentation of any problem behavior.
TIPS FROM THE FIRING LINE
When employees engage in problem behavior, supervisors need to be able to discuss the situation in a way that leads to a solution. Generally, that includes some constructive criticism so the employee knows exactly what the supervisor is dissatisfied about. Here are some ideas for keeping your criticism constructive:
• Describe the behavior, not the person. Suppose an employee orders the wrong materials for a project. It won’t help matters if you say, “How could you be so careless?” Better: “Ordering the wrong material is expensive. Please enter the item numbers more carefully next time.”
• Be specific and accurate about the problem. A general comment like “Your work is sloppy” or “Your attitude is poor” is vague. What changes in behavior will correct these problems? Similarly, an exaggeration such as “You’re always late” gives the employee an opening to offer examples to the contrary, rather than focusing on the problem.
• Give reasons for criticizing. Following orders feels easier when we know the purpose behind the orders.
• Use a neutral tone of voice. If you are too upset to speak calmly, wait until you calm down (except in an emergency, of course). Calming down is just as important for criticism that you put into writing. If you are making a written record of an incident, the principles described here matter more because the comments are more permanent.
• Keep it short. No matter how carefully you express yourself, criticism is painful to hear, so people resist it. The less you say, the more likely you will be heard.
• Criticize in private. Praise in public.