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Our Discipline System Seems Harsh and Inappropriate for Professional Employees?

Our discipline system seems harsh and inappropriate for professional employees with its warnings and reprimands and suspensions without pay. Is there a better approach?

The traditional ‘‘progressive discipline system,’’ with its criminal-justice mentality and its use of punitive warnings and reprimands and probation and suspensions without pay, is outmoded. Discipline Without Punishment is a more effective approach that should be adopted by every organization.

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Like conventional approaches, the Discipline Without Punishment performance management system provides a progressive series of steps to handle everyday problems of absenteeism, bad attitudes, and poor performance. Discipline Without Punishment rejects traditional punitive disciplinary responses, however. Reprimands, warnings, demotions, and unpaid disciplinary suspensions are eliminated. Instead of punishing employees for their misdeeds, the system requires employees to take personal responsibility for their own behavior and to make real decisions about their own careers.

When informal coaching conversations and performance improvement discussions are unsuccessful in solving a performance or behavior problem, the first level of formal disciplinary action is a Reminder 1. The supervisor discusses the problem and reminds the employee of his responsibility to meet the organization’s standards. The transaction is formally documented on a worksheet that the supervisor retains.

If the problem continues, the supervisor holds a Reminder 2 discussion. The supervisor again talks to the employee and gains her agreement to solve the problem. After the meeting, the supervisor documents their discussion and the employee’s commitment to solve the problem, this time in a written memo to the employee.

Although the use of the term Reminder seems gentle, it is actually tougher and more appropriate. Instead of warning the individual what we’re going to do the next time we catch him misbehaving, or reprimanding him as we would a six-year-old, we remind him of two things: first, the rule or expectation that the company has, which he has violated; second, the fact that it is his responsibility to do the job that he’s being paid to do.

The final step of Discipline Without Punishment is the ‘‘decisionmaking leave.’’ The employee is suspended for a day and told to return the day after the leave with a final decision: either to solve the immediate problem and make a ‘‘total performance commitment’’ to fully acceptable performance in every area of the job, or to resign and seek more satisfying employment elsewhere. The employee is paid for the day he is on decision-making leave to demonstrate the company’s good-faith desire to see him change and stay. He is also formally notified that if another problem requiring disciplinary action arises, he will be terminated. If another problem does arise, discharge follows.

Changing the names of the initial steps from oral warnings and written reprimands to Reminder 1 and Reminder 2 eliminates the inappropriate focus on the method of documentation. Paying the employee for the day of suspension changes the supervisor’s role from adversary to coach, eliminates money as an issue, reduces the possibility of hostile behavior or workplace violence, encourages supervisors to act rapidly and not wait until a nuisance has become a crisis, and—perhaps most important—makes you look good to a jury.