Discipline, Behavior, Distractions, and Change

Will a person’s behavior change when getting a written reprimand? The author analyzes the disciplinary process and offers suggestions for those who may be involved in a disciplinary situation.

Following a recent seminar, I was talking with a Labor/Employee Relations Specialist as he drove me to the airport.  He was worried about a written reprimand written to a particularly obnoxious employee.  One of his concerns was the possibility that the letter might result in a grievance or EEO complaint.  A grievance would have senior managers looking through the documentation and taking time out of their schedules to meet with the offending employee and her representative.  An EEO allegation could lead to an investigation of management’s motives in this matter.

When your posterior is among the alligators…

It was quickly becoming apparent that these potential litigation scenarios were obscuring the horizon.  The offending employee’s supervisor was apprehensive and the HR specialist was strategizing.  From far outside of the conflict, I was reminded of the old spiritual heard during the civil rights movement of the ‘60s – “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”

As I sat in an airport boarding area anticipating my return home, I became distracted by the matter as well.  Years ago, a supervisor attending one of my seminars asked a question that may have been rhetorical, but remains embedded in my memory, “What leads you to believe that a memo will change an adult’s behavior?”  The memo to which she referred was an “Official Reprimand”.

Those of us who work in Federal employee relations can become obsessed with paper trails.  After all, it takes a history of progressive discipline for most employees to be fired.  No history, no conclusion.  Change, however, should be the objective of all disciplinary actions short of removal.  “Change your behavior” is the message being directed by these actions.  Most employees do.  Some don’t.

Mama tried to raise me better…

As in our youth, discipline happens when a person designated to lead (teacher or parent) is convinced we have misbehaved or broken a rule.  Whether it was a spanking, a lecture, a time-out, a detention, or some other sanction; the objective was to ensure you didn’t misbehave again and learned to operate within a system of rules.

Now fast-forward to someone is “written up” for cussing out their coworker.  If the accused employee is arguing over the fact there is no list of unacceptable verbiage at the workplace, that’s a distraction.  So is questioning why others who swear when they stub a toe are dealt with less severely.  Adults acknowledge offensive behavior – intentional or otherwise.  They agree to cease and desist.

Telling your supervisor you are sick and unable to come to work when you are about to go fishing is a lie.  Arguing that it’s “my sick leave and I can use it however I want ,” is a childlike response from the person being confronted.  So is grieving management’s response to your lie because they can’t prove you weren’t sick.  If you had grown up like most of us, you would be better off to show embarrassment and apologize.

It’s not about the paper

Lawyers, HR specialists, and the managers they assist need to keep their eyes on the prize.  Discipline isn’t just a series of paperwork exercises.  It’s an attempt to correct a behavior problem.  Such actions should come from a sincere frustration over paying someone an adult salary for adult work, while s/he behaves like an adolescent.

Discipline shouldn’t be mechanistic.  No mom in her right mind would say, “If you talk back to me you’ll go to your room for the rest of that evening but if you steal from my purse you’ll lose computer/phone privileges for a week.”  Similarly, a “Table of Penalties” is silly tool when addressing the issue of an adult who neglects safety protocols or who believes their tobacco addiction should be subsidized with time off work to smoke.

Reprimands and suspensions represent documentation of the incident(s) and a hope for change.  They are bureaucratic responses to willful acts, costly mistakes, or repeated negligence.  Human behavior, however, is complicated.  A piece of paper or a few days without pay won’t stop an adult from lying, cheating, or stealing again absent a willingness to change.

What would a “grown-up” do?

We all know that acceptance of responsibility and/or apologies aren’t surefire indicators of change.  (Consider substance abusers you have known.)  They may, however, be better bets than pieces of paper designed by a Human Resources Office.

I was asked by my client, “What if she grieves the reprimand we’re preparing?”  My response is that the reprimand never was the issue.  It’s a memo.  It can, and within 1-3 years will, be shredded.  The only issue of importance to a good manager is future deportment.  When we in HR/legal focus on winning or losing the case, we are distracted from what matters most to leaders – 80 hours of honest work for 80 hours of stagnant-but-decent-pay.

Why not offer to shred the reprimand if the employee will assure you that, in months and years to come, he/she will not behave in a similar fashion?  In other words, it’s not about the disciplinary action, it’s about regaining confidence in that employee and their future choices.  …and get it in writing!!  If they are serious about changing, they should be willing to put their name to it.  That written acknowledgement is a better bet than any “Letter of Reprimand” I’ve ever read.

Meaningful solutions

I am a volunteer mediator of Federal workplace disputes through the Seattle Federal Executive Board’s excellent Alternative Dispute Resolution program.  I often find that creating the right climate for discussing a supervisor’s desire for change and the employee’s willingness to own certain behavioral issues can be an effective alternative to formal discipline.

Rather than official scoldings via HR-authored paperwork, structured conversations run by impartial outsiders can steer the employee’s and supervisor’s eyes back to the prize.  After allowing the parties to air their contentions, rebuttals, assertions and denials – a competent mediator will gradually shift their focus away from the past and toward the present and future.  That’s where the focus should be.

Some employees labeled as having a “negative attitude”.  Mediators often unearth the germ(s) that spawned those attitudes and behaviors.  Traditional disciplinary actions don’t explore the baggage that needs to be opened and examined if they are to move past that old stuff.

When it works (which is far more often the case than not) mediated discussions lead to written agreements that most lawyers and judges agree are contracts regarding future behavior.  That’s what most supervisors want – change.  If the employee doesn’t follow through on those written commitments, leadership should seriously escalate its response with the next incident – just a judge or parent would do.  In terms HR, unions and lawyers should understand from analyzing “Douglas factors”, the employee’s “potential for rehabilitation” has been called into question.

When mediated agreements aren’t reached, management and HR may default to disciplinary procedures as if the mediation never occurred.  Most mediators insist on confidentiality agreements which make these private discussions inadmissible as evidence.  Nothing has been lost but time.  What may be gained is a clear impression of the employee’s character and willingness to respond to leadership and agency norms.

Leaving Us vs. Them behind

Some FedSmith readers instinctively take an employee’s side in matters relating to discipline.  (No doubt, there are rotten apples in the barrel of leadership.)  Others jump to management’s defense.  (The vast majority of civil servants want to do their jobs without a coworker’s antics diverting their attention.)

My experience is that blame isn’t the issue, nor is proving a “charge” by a “preponderance of the evidence”.  Undistracted job performance is the objective.  We who advise supervisors and managers need to focus on the real issues – acknowledgement, apology, and/or future assurances.  Only when these more mature options fail are unilateral actions like reprimands and suspensions of real value.

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.