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Positive Discipline -- Sending the Right or Wrong Message

August 1, 1996
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Performance Appraisals, Featured Article
Tara Jenson, HR director at TEAM Technologies in Waterloo, Iowa, says:
In my experience as HR director for several companies, I've seen employee discipline take many forms. As professionals looked for a way to make employees more responsible for their own behavior and successes, traditional discipline began to give way to more innovative approaches.

Positive discipline, or discipline without punishment, has been around for a while. But companies have just recently started embracing it. Instead of warning employees about the consequences of their actions, we remind employees of the standards and ask for their agreement to solve the problem. This isn't just a difference in semantics. It has to be a difference in attitude and behavior.

For example, "John" was a new machine operator in a factory in which I was the HR director. He overslept and frequently was late to work. He also would leave a couple of minutes early to take care of personal matters. After his first month, his tardiness became a pattern.

During the first and second steps of discipline, we gave him a verbal and a written reminder. These steps began to engage the employee in understanding why it's important for workers to arrive on time and what happens when one fails to do so.

But the last and most powerful tool in the plan is known as Decision Day. When John failed to change his behavior, he was given a paid day off to reflect upon his employment and to decide if he was willing to solve the problem immediately and permanently, and return with a commitment to perform up to standard. We felt it was very important this step be a paid day off—to illustrate the company's support. He was instructed to return the next day—either ready to change his behavior and stay with us or quit. John took his leave seriously and has since been promoted several times. Now, he's a foreman.

At another company I worked for, we developed a positive process that included paid time off. However, we switched it to an unpaid day because of complaints from the general workforce. We called this step a Decisional Leave. Employees were asked to come back with their written plan for changing the behavior.

We asked the employees to focus on what the job meant to them and to their lives, what would happen if they didn't have the job, and what they were personally willing to commit to doing in order to keep the job. The signed statement became a contract with the company. Invariably, the person either lived up to the agreement or quit.

We also adopted the same practice with my present employer. Again, we started out with a three-day paid leave. But once our team environment took over the counseling role, the teams insisted on the leave being unpaid. However, they kept the practice of the person writing out a commitment letter. Then the team would review the letter and decide whether or not to reinstate the employee. Because most problems still involve attendance, people seem to feel paying people to stay home isn't acceptable.

Dave Green, personnel manager at Platte River Power Authority in Fort Collins, Colorado, says:
Several years ago, one of our managers attended a seminar and came back with the concept of positive discipline. The idea was to send a misbehaving employee home with pay to think about his or her transgressions, write an essay on how the problem would be corrected in the future, and then come back to work as a productive, enthusiastic, wonderful employee. We tried it a couple of times. Did we get productive, enthusiastic, wonderful employees? No. We got the same employees back whom we sent home. The only difference was that they were carrying poorly written, scribbled promises to behave in the future. It was reminiscent of the school teacher who made us write a hundred times on the blackboard, "I won't chew gum in class."

Feedback from other employees told us it was viewed as an extra day of paid vacation. So we've gone back to unpaid time off for discipline. It seems to get their attention, and that's the whole point.

Joan Farrell, HR director, Label Sector at Lawson Mardon Packaging in Fayetteville, New York, says:
The message sent when inappropriate behavior first occurs sets the stage. In applying discipline, human resources must ask, "What is our intent?" If we want to fire the person, then punitive discipline is the quickest route. The message is, "You are wrong; you have failed; therefore, you must be punished." If indifference to standards is the issue, this doesn't remove the indifference. It also places the responsibility for correction on management, reinforcing a parent-child relationship: "I'm in charge, and I will punish you so you will learn."

If we want to correct the behavior and make the person accountable, then positive discipline is the answer. It says, "You are accountable for your actions. We want you as an employee, but you haven't lived up to our agreement, and we need to know what you will do to improve the situation."

My first experience with positive discipline was with a company replacing a striking workforce during a period of low unemployment. The new employees were good workers, but they often had attendance problems. We quickly learned that if we used the three-strikes -and-you're-out approach, we simply replaced one problem employee with another. So we developed a system incorporating a verbal discussion, a second documented discussion and a decisional leave.

The decisional leave is a timeout for the employee to reflect on specific questions: How important is the job to him or her? What would happen to him or her if the job was lost? What was he or she willing to do in order to keep the job? We asked the person to come back with a written response, including specific commitments (buying an alarm clock, developing alternate car-pool arrangements, switching shifts to accommodate childcare needs). At the end of the leave, the commitment letter was reviewed by the supervisor, the department manager and the HR manager before the employee's reinstatement. The employee came back with the burden for change clearly on his or her own shoulders, and either lived up to the commitment or voluntarily resigned. Rarely would an employee who moved through this process be terminated for failure to honor the commitment.

Michael J. Jedel, a labor and employment arbitrator in Atlanta, Georgia, says:
Companies with unions need to consider labor officials' reservations about positive discipline. Their opposition has been based on the concern that it doesn't allow employees to know where they stand in the eyes of supervisors. Moreover, it fails to make clear what steps follow repeated infractions—particularly in the critical stage of the decision-making leave. The errant individual also may not understand that discharge can be the next step.

These problems can be real, but they can be addressed if supervisors have been trained properly in the mechanics of administering such a system, and if the notification to the employees (and to the union) is communicated effectively.

Another reason for potential union resistance is that positive discipline may be seen as limiting or eliminating the union representative's role in negotiating a modification of the disciplinary action, as one might historically have done under a more conventional progressive discipline system.

However, because arbitrators have routinely recognized the right of employers to unilaterally adopt and implement positive systems as part of their customary management right, union opposition needn't discourage the practice, but HR should take these concerns under consideration.

In terms of arbitrators, many are unfamiliar with positive discipline. But in my own informal surveys, I don't think my colleagues would generally have conceptual problems in upholding such a system, as long as the basic requisites of just cause are satisfied. Those who've arbitrated such cases seem to have accepted and praised this positive approach.

Personnel Journal, August 1996, Vol. 75, No. 8, pp. 109-110.

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