Making Lemonade: Progressive is Not Regressive Discipline

Progressive discipline should be viewed as teaching as much as it is discipline. Unfortunately, what passes for progressive discipline is really a Regressive Discipline process that frustrates leaders and angers employees because it punishes rather than coaches employees to improve.

Difference in Conduct and Performance

First it is important to understand that conduct is disciplined and performance is evaluated. Therefore, when an employee engages in misconduct, such as breaking a work rule, coming to work late, violating a policy, they may be subjected to discipline. However, when their work performance is substandard, fails to meet objectives, or they are to slow or do work incorrectly, their performance evaluation will show their work is deficient. Poor performance is an inability to do the job correctly while misconduct is an unwillingness to follow the rules.

Teaching Versus Telling Work Communities

A teaching work community is one where employees know what is expected for their conduct and their performance. Expectations are clear and are modeled by coworkers and managers. When an employee fails to perform or engages in misconduct they are schooled in proper performance and conduct by their peers and their leaders. It is a learning environment which starts from the premise that people want to “do it right!” Coworkers and managers believe that with coaching and support they will get the hang of it and be successful. Telling work communities, tend to tell people what to do and tells them when they are doing it wrong but misses the teaching component. In Fredrick Herzberg’s now famous Motivation Theory known as KITA, “Kick In The Ass”, Herzberg explains the failure of the KITA method to create enthusiastic and self-actualized employees. http://hbr.org/2003/01/one-more-time-how-do-you-motivate-employees/ar/1 Unfortunately an entirely new era of management still subscribes to KITA as a means of motivating employees. The model still fails when employees begin kicking back. The result is regressive, productivity and performance suffer under the KITA method.

Progressive Discipline

The purpose of progressive discipline is to change behavior from misconduct to proper conduct. It is a series of appropriate consequences that are designed to recover productive employees by giving them the opportunity to change their behavior. At its beginning levels it is a coaching and teaching process. At its advance level its purpose is to come to a decision that is best for the company and the employee where there is a termination of their relationship. What follows is a generalized description of the steps to progressive discipline drawn from an extensive labor history in this country.

The Beginning Step: Clearly Understood Work Rules

Every employer needs to insure that their conduct expectations are clear and well understood. It helps if they are modeled by supervisors and coworkers alike. They should be reviewed with employees regularly, at least annually, and at anytime it is apparent that the employee doesn’t understand or know the work rules. Effective managers take the time to coach new employees regarding work rules and company expectations. Whenever an employee violates a work rule, the supervisor should first ask themselves, “Does the employee know the rule?” If the answer is yes, the next question is, “What do I base that answer on?” Effective managers can point to the evidence demonstrating the employee’s knowledge of the work rule, perhaps a handbook, a staff meeting, a memo, etc. If the manager does not know if the employee knows the rule it is time for a private discussion with the employee to determine if they know the rule and regardless if they do or don’t, a brief coaching session on the rule and the expectations and an assurance that the employee now knows the rule. The supervisor makes a note in the employee’s file regarding their discussion on this date and what the employee had to say during coaching. Let the employee know you are making a record for their file.

Step Two: Oral Warning

The Oral Warning occurs only after the supervisor is convinced that the employee knows the work rule because they have already coached the employee on the work rule and their expectation for performance. When the work rule violation occurs again, the supervisor invites the employee to a private meeting and rehearses with the employee their previous discussion from the employee’s own file. The appropriate supervisor asks to understand if there was some legitimate basis for acting contrary to the work rule? The supervisor listens carefully and then explains to the employee a correct application of the work rule and provides a warning that they must comply with the work rules to maintain a successful relationship with the company. The supervisor asks the employee to explain back to them what is expected and then encourages the employee to apply their best efforts to complying with the work rule. If more training is necessary to understand the work rule, the supervisor arranges it, or provides specific copies of the work rule for the employee’s benefit. Following the oral warning meeting the supervisor sends a note to the employee thanking them for their agreement to comply with the work rule in the future and expressing the supervisor’s belief that they will be successful. A copy of the letter is placed in the employee’s file. Let the employee know you are making a record for their file.

Step Three: Written Reprimand

If the employees misconduct occurs again, the supervisor does not need to be upset. The employee’s decision to violate a work rule is their decision and they should be allowed to own that decision. The supervisor invites the employee to a private meeting to discuss the work rule violation. The supervisor rehearses with the employee the two previous conversations, the coaching and the warning, and asks the employee to explain the basis for this latest violation. The supervisor’s purpose is to insure that there are no legitimate reasons for the work rule violation. If there are none, and after giving the employee the opportunity to explain themselves the supervisor explains that they are sorry that the employee has yet to learn this work rule and that it is important for the supervisor to now put the work rule and the employee’s failure to comply with it in writing. The supervisor explains that the employee will be getting a written warning or reprimand highlighting their discussion today and warning the employee that future violations may result in discipline including possible discharge. Let the employee know you are making a record for their file.

Step Four: Written Reprimand and Suspension

When or if the employee’s misconduct occurs again, the supervisor need not be upset with the employee. The employee has continued this pattern of misconduct with knowledge of the possible consequences. The supervisor invites the employee to a private meeting to discuss the work rule violation. The supervisor rehearses with the employee the three previous conversations, the coaching, the warning, and the written reprimand and once again asks the employee to explain the basis for this latest violation. The supervisor’s purpose is to insure that there are no legitimate reasons for the latest work rule violation. If there are none, and after giving the employee the opportunity to explain themselves the supervisor explains that they are sorry that the employee has yet to learn this work rule and that it is important for the supervisor to now put the work rule and the employee’s failure to comply with it in writing. Since this is now the second time the supervisor has had to reprimand the employee the supervisor is going to give the employee 1-3 days off work without pay to consider if they want to comply with the rule and return to work and work successfully within the work expectations. The supervisor explains that the employee will be getting a written reprimand and 1-3 days unpaid suspension highlighting their discussion today and warning the employee that future violations may result in possible discharge. Let the employee know you are making a record for their file.

Step Five: Separating Service

When or if the employee’s misconduct occurs again, the supervisor invites the employee to a private meeting to discuss the seriousness of this latest violation. Again the supervisor asks for an explanation of the latest violation to determine if there are any reasons why this violation may be excused. The supervisor explains that he or she will carefully consider the employee’s explanation and weigh all the information before making a decision either to terminate or reinstate them. In the interim the employee is going to be placed on paid suspension pending the final decision. If the supervisor determines that the employee will be discharged for this final infraction a date of termination is determined and the employee’s final check is prepared for delivery to the employee. This paid suspension period gives the employer the opportunity to review all aspects of the decision, to comply with all wage and hour laws, and allow for review by Human Resources and or the legal department. Careful review of local state law will guide the employer on what they need to do to insure they comply with all the final payment of wage rules.

Step Six: Optional Appeal

An appeal process is not generally a step in the standard progressive discipline model; however, it allows an additional due process procedure for the employee to have the decision appealed to a manager in the organization who will review the record, hear any information the employee wishes to present and then makes a determination regarding the rightness of the decision that was previously made. The benefit to this additional step is that it allows the employee an opportunity to have their issues heard fully and by someone who didn’t make the original decision. The employee is informed that they are to present any and all evidence on which they are relying for the company to weigh the decision. Any information not presented in the appeal will be objected to in any post appeal legal process.

Conduct Not Subject to Progressive Discipline

Not all conduct falls under Progressive discipline. Conduct that is illegal or immoral is not subject to Progressive Discipline. An employee who steals, lies, comes to work drunk, sexually molests another employee, who assaults or batters another employee or patron of the business doesn’t get progressive discipline. Some conduct is so egregious you don’t get a second bite of the bad apple. Immediate termination is the result of such egregious acts.

Conclusion

Progressive Discipline takes time and is more work for the employer and the employer’s managers. However, while it takes time it is cost effective when you consider the potential savings from future litigation which results from employees who believe nobody was listening and who don’t believe their explanations were heard. Further, in many states, an employee’s failure to comply with progressive disciplinary actions are disqualified from receiving Unemployment Benefits due to misconduct. Review the rules in your state to determine if an employee who doesn’t comply after multiple disciplinary acts still qualifies for unemployment benefits. Finally, a major benefit for your supervisors and employees is they all know that efforts were made to help the employee succeed and their failure to be successful wasn’t a result of not trying to help them. That consistency is reassuring to the workforce and the supervisor knows they did what they could to help. For more information search the web regarding “Progressive Discipline.”

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Posted in Making Lemonade.