Effective Management Requires Effective Discipline

The author says that to many employees, the concept of discipline usually conjures up a very negative impression as being punitive. However, he says that if applied effectively, discipline is designed to modify behavior or performance and should always be the first and foremost goal of supervisors and management.

he vast majority of employees follow the rules and they find their work and environment suitable and self-motivating. Thus, on the surface, it would appear that any discussion on discipline would only apply to a very few employees.

Although this might adequately explain the application of discipline, I do not believe that this simplistic view totally explains what discipline is all about. To many, discipline usually conjures up a very negative impression as being punitive. Discipline, if applied effectively is designed to modify behavior or performance. That should always be the first and foremost goal of supervisors and management.

The dictionary defines discipline as: mental training or efficiency; subject to control; chastisement; or punishment. In any organization, attaining a goal requires both collective and individual discipline. The objective must be clearly defined, authority and responsibility delegated, and each employee motivated in harmony to achieve the overall goal.

Discipline is justified to correct misconduct that has an adverse effect on the effectiveness of the agency. In most cases, that means conduct in the workplace or on duty time for either performance or conduct related reasons.

Judges and arbitrators look at removal as the economic death penalty, and only should be applied when all other efforts to correct behavior has failed.   These third party rights advocates also look to progressive discipline, applying discipline in a progressive manner. This means, in most cases, that increasingly stiffer penalties should be applied in response to repeated offenses.

There are times, however, when some offenses are so objectionable that they are not suitable for progressive penalties, and may justify removal even for a first offense. An example is an unprovoked physical assault on an employee or supervisor. I remember a case where an employee walked into a break room and declared that if he were to discover the person who ratted him out to his supervisor, that person and his/her family would meet up with his AR-15. Needless to say, that person is no longer in government service.

The goal setting, responsibility-delegating and performance standardizing is the foundation of successful management, yet the loss of self-discipline may lead to ineffective performance, rule violations, and even a disciplinary penalty. In my experience and opinion, too often the breakdown of discipline is not the fault per se of employees, but rather management. Supervisors and managers too frequently prove the physical property of electricity – it will always take the path of least resistance.

Many supervisors shy away from disciplinary procedures when the occasion demands them to act. I have found that too often they will ignore the problem in the hope it will go away, are uncertain of the approach to be taken, find discipline to be an unpleasant task, are unwilling to take the time needed to correct behavior or performance, afraid they may lose face, uncertain if they will be supported by their higher management, or some combination of all of the above. Individually, or collectively, all of these excuses are bad and unacceptable.

Unfortunately, the failure to act or the improper handling of discipline may cause more serious problems:

  1. Loss of management control;
  2. Loss of respect for management;
  3. Deterioration of organizational accomplishment;
  4. Hostility between employees, management and a union;
  5. Grievances; and
  6. Grievances that are difficult to defend because of disparate treatment or a lack of documentation.

Performance or conduct problems do not surface overnight, but too many supervisors unfortunately allow mistakes, even serious ones, to stockpile and then they unload them on the employee all at once, usually at the time of the interim or annual performance discussion.

Discipline is then viewed as punitive rather than corrective. Late intervention, negative feedback, inadequate definition of the problem and labeling the person rather than the behavior will only compound and frustrate an unfortunate situation.

Because people are imperfect, they cannot possibly do their jobs perfectly. However, when a mistake does occur, the supervisor should point it out immediately. This prompt and timely reaction is just as important as the accolade that reinforces a task done well, and it helps supervisors obtain positive results and maintain discipline among all of his/her direct reports.

Discipline can be constructive, a valuable supervisory technique for improving performance or behavior and letting the employee know that improved performance will eventually be rewarded.

The supervisor must define clearly the performance expectation and provide the opportunity for the employee to meet these expectations. The employee must then be responsible for meeting these performance standards.

The toughest part of a supervisor’s job is to criticize objectively an employee’s performance. In cases where corrective discipline has failed and chronic poor performance or major offenses exist, punitive disciplinary action is just as important in maintaining control as the other actions are in correcting a problem. The corrective discipline approach must include:

  1. Early identification of deficient performance or behavior;
  2. Explanation of how, when, where, and the why behind the performance standards;
  3. Mutual commitment by the employee and supervisor;
  4. Supervisory follow-up to keep the employee informed;
  5. Supervisory instruction or training, and
  6. Positive reinforcement when improvement is realized.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the father of total quality management and Six Sigma, once commented that the most destructive force in the workplace, next to the layoff, is the performance evaluation process. Whether it is government, or the private sector, the Deming institute has found that the lack of timely feedback and supervisory involvement is universal and is the catalyst for negative interactions. Dr. Deming advocated the abolishment of formal performance evaluation systems.

Whether disciplinary action is corrective or punitive, documentation is vital. Oral counseling and warnings are not worth the paper they are written on. Supervisors are often overwhelmed with paperwork and perceive performance notes as a hindrance rather than an aid to effective management and rarely document a poor performance/conduct counseling session. Frequently, this lack of documentation stems from the belief that one discussion will bring about the desired change. Perhaps it will, but when improvement does not occur, evidence of counseling and specificity are essential to the successful defense of a disciplinary action.

Therefore, corrective discipline should be the goal is most cases. It is not intended to resolve severe or chronic cases of poor performance or misbehavior and to replace punitive actions when necessary. Nevertheless, when either is applied judiciously and appropriately, time and money can be saved and organizational goals can be enhanced.

About the Author

Since retiring in 2011 after nearly 40 years of federal service, Bob Dietrich has been active in training supervisors and HR staff on FLSA and FMLA. He has a three-day course that he can bring to your agency, and he may be reached through the FedSmith.com website.