If you are a federal supervisor or human resources specialist, work with me on a hypothetical situation. Don’t worry; it’ll all become relevant in a couple of minutes.
Let’s say you have a serious disease. You talk to your doctor, he tells you that there are several medications that you could choose from to try to treat it, and you can choose only one. They all cost the same, have the same side effects, and have roughly the same chance at curing your disease.
However, one of the options, and only one, has a unique characteristic. If you take this medication, and it does not work, it serves as a precursor for a stronger drug, a drug that may lead to a complete cure. The other medications do not have this special characteristic; they either work or they don’t work, but they don’t do you any good if they fail. So the decision to make is: Which drug do you choose?
I have to believe that most of us would choose the drug that acts as a stepping stone to the next level of treatment, the drug that if it fails, at least it sets the stage for your moving up to the stronger medication. Why waste your time on something that might work, but provides no benefit if it doesn’t?
OK, now let’s go to a supervisor who doesn’t have a disease, but instead has a problem employee, an employee who won’t obey workplace rules. You’re considering options as to what to do to try to fix the situation.
Well, some would advise that you could issue a Warning Letter, or, perhaps a Letter of Counseling, or, a Written Admonishment. These might work to correct the employee’s behavior, to put him on notice that he’s messing up and needs to do better.
Or, you could issue the employee a Reprimand. It takes just as much effort to draft a Reprimand as it does any of these other memos (e.g., the cost is the same). They can each be challenged through the discrimination complaint process, all the way to EEOC and the federal courts (e.g., the side effects are the same).
However, there is one critical difference between a Reprimand and all those other letters. If a Reprimand fails, if the employee subsequently engages in another act of misconduct, the fact that she has a Reprimand in her file justifies your applying the principle of “progressive discipline.” That principle empowers an agency to suspend an employee without pay for an act of misconduct (e.g., stronger medication) if the employee has failed to respond to the discipline of a prior Reprimand.
If a Reprimand did not work to motivate the employee to comply with workplace rules, perhaps taking away part of a paycheck with a Suspension will get his attention. And if that doesn’t work, the philosophy of “progressive discipline” eventually leads to a Removal if the employee continues to engage in misconduct (e.g., the cure).
In our training classes at the Federal Employment Law Training Group, we like to present Pop Quizzes. Here’s one today for you FedSmith readers:
If you are dealing with a misbehaving employee and you want a tool to use to try to correct the employee’s misconduct, but you’re not ready to suspend or remove the employee, why would you ever use anything other than a Reprimand?
Pop Quiz Answer: I don’t know either.
William Wiley has been active in the field of federal employment law for 40 years. In his last governmental position, he served for eight years as a Chief Counsel of the US Merit Systems Protection Board. He is a frequent speaker in training programs presented by the Federal Employment Law Training Group (FELTG). Sign up for FELTG’s free employment law practitioner newsletter here.