Our Discipline System Needs Corrective Action

The disciplinary system for federal employees is cumbersome and time-consuming. Here are suggestions for fixing the system.

Many Federal employees and their unions believe they are suffering a political assault designed to lessen local union influence, afford fewer appeal rights, accord less deference to seniority, etc. This is not an ideal backdrop for discussing a more management-friendly discipline system. All but the most zealous union representatives and the most paranoid employees will agree with this statement: Our system for dealing with disciplinary issues is cumbersome and time-consuming.

Discipline is designed by laws and regulations to address behavior problems in the work force. Examples of such misconduct are:

  • People surfing the net when others are working (forget the porn freaks for a minute and consider those clicking ’round e-bay, espn, match, solon, etc.)
  • Employees who falsify their entries on a sign-in list.
  • Co-workers taking an hour or two each day to e-mail friends/family.
  • Coming back from lunch a half-hour late day after day.
  • Folks who think they have a right to call in sick… when they’re not.
  • Those who use the government credit card for personal expenses.
  • …and on and on and on.

You’ve known one or more of these folks. You’ve worked with them. They get away with things you don’t try. The rules don’t seem to apply to them. Now consider their bosses. Some are incompetent. Others are natural leaders. Some are drunk with their authority. Others are humble and caring. All of them however, have something in common. They believe that the system for dealing with behavior problems is broken.

This article offers two technical suggestions for fixing the government’s discipline system… and another will come in a future article.

To my knowledge, these ideas can be implemented without changes to laws or government-wide regulations. Your agency will only make such changes, however, if there is some demand from from you and others to do so.

First, let’s quit expunging Official Reprimands.

Written reprimands represent the start of the formal disciplinary process. At present, most agencies (by their own regulations and/or union contracts) require that Letters of Reprimand (which often follow documented warnings, counselings, and/or admonishments) disappear from official records after 1, 2, or 3 years — depending on where you work.

Because agencies, unions, and human nature dictate that employees with questionable behavior problems be approached reasonably at first, it may take a supervisor a year or more to sign off on a Letter of Reprimand. Let me illustrate:

  • 10/04 Employee arrives to work late… again. Reminded work begins at 8:00.
  • 12/04 Employee late again without excuse. Told to complete an annual leave request. 1/04 Employee formally counseled regarding repeated tardiness.
  • 3/04 Employee warned that future late arrival will result in discipline.
  • 6/04 Employee late three times this month. Issued a “Letter of Counseling”.
  • 9/04 After investigating three more instances of tardiness, “Letter of Reprimand” issued.

For most employees, a problem like this is easily solved. I tell federal supervisors and managers attending the seminar “Dealing With Performance and Conduct Issues” that the most common way to resolve continuing irresponsibility issues is with a simple remark or reminder. The responsible employee can “take the hint” and change his/her behavior.

If the simple and direct approach proves fruitless, the road to formal discipline is paved with wishful thinking, cautious human resources advisors, unrecognized hints, zealous union representatives, redundant conversations, etc. Meanwhile, the co-workers are wondering why no one is responding to the problem. (Of course, if the supervisor is clever or lucky enough, the offending employee will have been reassigned and the process begins again… on the next boss’ watch.)

Given this painfully slow process, why should such letters expire (or be expunged in many agencies) after only a couple of years? After months or years the criminal justice system may forgive your misdemeanor, or even a felony. But must they destroy all records relating to those convictions? We all hope not, lest the same person break into our house or apartment.

In the Federal government, if you are reprimanded for stealing government property, the very manager who signed the Letter of Reprimand must never mention that it was issued after two years have passed — even if you’re caught stealing again! Such regulations are foolish. Too often they result in administrative games that undermine the seriousness repeat offenders pose to morale and productivity in agencies that are overworked and understaffed.

The written reprimand is an administrative conviction. My guess is that most readers of this article have never received one. Although I can’t find data from OPM on this subject, I would venture to guess that most Federal employees go through an entire career without ever receiving such a letter. Therefore, it needn’t be institutionally forgotten after a year or two.

It’s time for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to step up to the plate and issue new guidance for this century (if not the last one) that encourages agencies to retain copies of Official Reprimands for at least five years, if not indefinitely.

Let reprimands remain in Official Personnel Folders (OPFs) — with the understanding that the older they are, the less relevant they become — just like awards.

Next come suspensions.

What is the Federal government of the United States of America doing suspending employees from work without pay? That’s something schools do to children. First you are sent to the principal’s office for a lecture, then you must take a note home to be signed by your parents. If your behavior problems persist, you are sent home from school for a day or more — and those same parents have to figure out what to do with you.

When Federal employees are suspended from work, however, their parents aren’t even advised of it! And, just as with misbehavior at school, it’s not unusual to suspend someone for the crime of not showing up to work or “cutting class” by disappearing for hours on end. Don’t you find that a bit ironic… or is it just me? “As punishment for playing hooky, we’re sending you home.” Huh?

It’s time OPM and Federal agencies grew up in their parenting practices. Let’s do what the private sector figured out years ago — Letter 1, Letter 2, Letter 3… and at some point you get fired.

If my first suggestion was followed, the letters will be retained until the misconduct is corrected or the employee’s gone. It’s common sense.

Should you be so unfortunate as to be caught breaking a rule serious enough to warrant such action, your union will be there to take up your cause. This is something the vast majority of private sector employees lack… and wish they had. Moreover, the occasional unscrupulous supervisor or manager should be challenged and exposed.

Unions serve this purpose. I’m glad they do.

I am suggesting a simpler and more efficient discipline system. Ours is outdated and deserves a fresh look. It’s more sensible to have letters in lieu of suspensions. There’s no need in times of scarce resources to be sending employees home to convince ’em they’ve been bad.

How would such a “paper suspension” read? We could title ’em, “Letter of Reprimand in Lieu of __-Day Suspension”. Such an option seems to be allowable given the section devoted to the General Accounting Office in this report by the Office of Personnel Management.

Finally, I know that many good employees have been promoted to management positions who shouldn’t have been. Some are incompetent — proving the “Peter Principle” and reflecting unacceptable performance. Others are irresponsible — proving, yet again, that power corrupts. We should not, however, build discipline systems that assume such people are the most common faces in Federal management.

I know there are decent and sincere people throughout Federal management. I’ve worked for wonderful and talented folks (Shelly, are you reading this?) and they deserve human resources systems that support their efforts. Their subordinates want certain co-workers dealt with.

These two suggestions might make it easier for good managers to deal with their thorniest problems. They represent a beginning. My intent is to help good employees get on with the work of government without suffering continuing distractions from co-workers.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to trainingfeds.com.