A Respectful Way to Discipline Employees

As leaders in our organizations, can't we take the first step toward creating the kind of workplace that values people, not one that punishes them?
09/29/2014 09:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Let me get something off my chest. I think the progressive discipline system in place at the majority of companies is, as an enlightened HR executive friend of mine says, "soul-murdering."

Humor me for a second while I break this down.

The dictionary defines discipline as a "punishment inflicted by way of correction and training." Punishment. Inflicted. Let that sink in.

If you spend just five minutes searching the Internet for the term "progressive discipline," you find the craziest things that even good companies have accepted as standard and added to their employee handbooks, such as "Progressive discipline is the process of using increasingly severe steps or measures when an employee fails to correct a problem." So let me get this straight -- progressive discipline expects employee performance to improve by treating the employee progressively worse. Truly, this is the definition of insanity.

Traditional discipline minimizes communication and employs threatening language at every stage. For those of you not in HR, progressive discipline is often a four-step process (verbal warning, written warning, final written warning or suspension, and termination), and HR professionals are trained to end each step with the not-so-hopeful refrain: "Failure to correct the problem may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including possible termination." Really encouraging, huh?

The problem is that punishment is not instructive. It cannot teach a new behavior or solve a problem. You may be able to stop a person from doing something or even coerce him to act in a more desirable way, but the desired behavior will never be permanently learned unless the person recognizes the impact of the problem and takes ownership to solve it.

So why do so many companies use this system? The simple answer is that they think they need to have it to avoid legal claims. The truth is that an employee who wants to take unfair advantage of the company will do it whether there are policies in place or not. These "bad apples" will cost you, no matter what you do.

The good news is that there's a better way -- a respectful way -- that creates a positive employee response and prompts a commitment to changed behavior. And it's legally defensible.

This approach requires alignment with two key philosophies:

  1. Remember that 95 percent of employees are responsible adults. If a problem develops and is brought to their attention, they will want to solve it.
  2. By using adult communication, showing confidence and trust, and involving the employee in finding a solution, you will get the desired results.

The approach is simple.

First, use adult communication to describe the specific problem, then state the impact. Stating the impact is important because when people become aware of the impact and see how it affects others, they want to fix it. However, it's still important to get to the root of the problem.

In manufacturing, leaders are trained to ask "The Five Whys." By repeatedly asking the question, you can peel away the layers of symptoms and uncover the root cause of a problem. Once you know the cause, it's much easier to facilitate "the employee's" solution.

This chart shows the differences between traditional discipline and this employee-focused, counseling approach:
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With progressive discipline, the manager and the employee become stuck in a series of escalating steps, ending in threats and documentation. When you use performance counseling, you treat people with respect and the positive assumption that -- as responsible adults -- they will resolve the problem.

As leaders in our organizations, can't we take the first step toward creating the kind of workplace that values people, not one that punishes them?

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Sue Bingham is the founder and principal of HPWP Consulting. She works closely with company leaders to analyze their organizations and facilitate the implementation of commonsense systems that have a positive impact on their organizations' bottom line. She has a passion for helping companies embrace and transition to high-performance work environments. Want to learn more about this counseling approach? Check out our webinar series on this topic.