Discipline: The Most Dreaded Management Task
by Christina Morfeld

Do you regard discipline and punishment as one and the same? If so, that may explain your uneasiness at the thought of disciplining employees who exhibit substandard conduct or work quality - particularly those who fail despite their best efforts.

At some point, unfortunately, you will probably be faced with unacceptable on-the-job behavior or performance. Resist the urge to ignore these problems, as the long-term effects of doing so can be much more devastating than your short-term discomfort with confronting them.

Consider for a moment the fact that the word "discipline" is derived from the Latin word "disciple," which means "to teach." It already sounds less daunting, doesn't it? The reality is that discipline - when administered properly - is not as unpleasant as you might think.

"Progressive discipline" is a process for correcting problems in a positive, non-punitive way. Chances are, if your organization has a formal discipline policy in place, it is progressive in nature. That is, the longer the undesirable behavior persists, the harsher the consequences become - including possible termination.

Discipline that is administered in stages gives the employee ample opportunity to turn his or her performance around. It also helps maintain the morale of other staff members who may be watching the situation unfold: It is demotivating to see the poor performance or behavior of others ignored, yet comforting to know that it is dealt with in a fair manner.

While the stages of progressive discipline may vary slightly from one company to another, the most common ones are:

  • Verbal reprimand (or "warning"),

  • Written reprimand (or "warning"),

  • Unpaid suspension, and

  • Termination.

It is important that, at each step along the way, the troubled employee knows exactly:

  • What is expected of him or her;

  • How his or her actual performance falls short of this standard;

  • What effect this gap has on the operations of the department; and

  • What the consequences of a failure to improve will be.

While progressive discipline is generally the most effective method of dealing with problematic workers, it must be practiced within a larger framework. To increase the likelihood of positively influencing employee performance and protecting against legal action, keep Douglas McGregor's "hot stove rule" in mind:

  • Foreseeable
    Just as the flames or red coils provide warning that you will be burned by touching the stove, your employees should know in advance that poor conduct or performance will result in specific, pre-determined consequences.

  • Immediate
    When you touch a hot stove, you know instantaneously that you have done something wrong. Similarly, an employee should be quickly told if he or she is failing to meet expectations.

  • Impersonal
    The fact that you are burned is a function of the stove, not who you are. Likewise, the discipline applied in a particular situation should reflect the offense, not the person who committed it.

  • Consistent
    Regardless of who touches a hot stove, the result will be the same each and every time. This is also true of discipline; it should not be applied arbitrarily, nor should it differ, for the same offense, from one person to the next.

Adherence to your organization's written disciplinary policy (or, in the absence of one, the guidelines presented in this article) will facilitate the smooth operation of your workgroup, help employees correct problems with no "hard feelings," and strengthen your organization's defense against lawsuits.


Christina Morfeld is a writer for Suite101.com and president of Affinity Business Communications, a provider of high-quality instructional design, technical writing, and content development solutions. Whether writing to instruct, inform, or persuade, our work is reader-focused, benefits-oriented, and results-driven. Visit our website at http://www.affinitybizcomm.com to learn how we can increase your firm's sales and effectiveness!

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Copyright 2001-2002 by Christina Morfeld and Affinity Business Communications, LLC.
Originally published by Suite101.com. All rights reserved.

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