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The Ten Commandments of Effective Discipline

* Links followed by an asterisk are password protected and accessible to CBIA Members. For information on joining CBIA, click here . By Michael J. Soltis Attorney in the Stamford office of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman This CBIA article is intended to provide general information only. It is not intended as legal advice or as a solution to an individual problem. You are encouraged to consult with appropriate legal counsel prior to relying on this document in whole or in part. All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy for different reasons. So said Leo Tolstoy in the prologue to the novel Anna Karenina. The same can be said for well-run companies. These companies tend to have effective discipline systems, usually for the same reasons. In my experience, the disciplinary procedures of soundly run companies all share certain characteristics that make the discipline carried on at the companies truly effective. I call these the Ten Commandments of effective discipline. The First Commandment: Discipline shall be centralized. In a larger company, all discipline at some point is channeled through the employee relations office. In a small plant, all discipline is channeled through the personnel office. At a facility where there is no specialized employee relations or personnel function, a central figure such as a general manager or a controller acts as the conduit through whom all disciplinary actions are processed. Although disciplinary action, particularly in the case of less serious offenses, generally is taken at the lowest level of supervision, centralization ensures a certain amount of uniformity throughout a facility or an entire company. If discipline is to be effective, it must be uniform. The Second Commandment: Discipline decisions shall be reviewed before being implemented. The one exception to this may be verbal warnings. In all other cases, however, either a secondline supervisor or a staff person, such as a personnel manager, should review proposed disciplinary action. Not only does this assure uniformity, it also ensures a certain amount of fairness and tends to minimize the arbitrariness that can creep into discipline systems.

The Third Commandment: The employer shall notify employees of conduct that may result in discipline. The government posts the speed limit to give fair notice to all drivers of the conduct that is prohibited. Employers should provide fair notice as well. For example, companies sometimes post or publish work rules that, if violated, may lead to disciplinary action. Is it necessary to publish every incident that may result in discipline? Of course not; that would be virtually impossible to do. List as much as you can and, reserving the companys right to discipline for conduct not listed, apply a rule of common sense. That way, your employees will be unable to claim that they did not have sufficient notice when you discipline them. The Fourth Commandment: The employer shall provide industrial due process. Due process may be defined as giving an employee the specifics of the charges against him or her and providing that employee with an opportunity to respond to those charges. For a written warning, the employee may want to write a rebuttal statement. In the case of a more serious disciplinary action, such as a discharge, you might allow the employee to explain him- or herself prior to implementing the discipline. You might even interview witnesses suggested by the employee. Although no law requires due process in the private sector, courts and reviewing agencies tend to give credence to discipline that incorporates due-process principles, as opposed to discipline that may appear arbitrary. The Fifth Commandment: Discipline shall be progressive, at least most of the time. Progressive discipline systems generally involve a three- or four-step approach before an employer terminates an employee. Such a system is based on the presumption that employees, by nature, do not wish to engage in misconduct and, if allowed a chance, will correct their behavior. Of course, some employees respond to progressive discipline, while others do not. Progressive discipline systems vary. Sometimes two written warnings are used rather than a suspension. In other cases, written warnings are used instead of verbal warnings. Some employers use a progression for similar or related offenses. Others use the same progression regardless of the nature of the offense. Some employers have one progression for attendancerelated violations and another for all others. A progressive discipline system inherently involves due process, since by the very nature of the system, employees are warned prior to the implementation of more serious disciplinary action. In cases where there has been a genuine misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge on an employees part, a progressive discipline system gives employees the chance to correct their behavior. Often, a progressive discipline system involves the elimination of less serious offenses or, sometimes, all records of discipline within a certain period of time, such as one year. This lets employees who made a mistake early in their career avoid having to carry the burden of that mistake throughout their employment.

The Sixth Commandment: The employer shall document the discipline. The documentation should consist of documents relating to prior discipline (the progressive discipline) as well as to the current discipline. Performance evaluations should be consistent with the disciplinary documentation. Depending on the circumstances, the documentation may include notes or statements from witness interviews. A note on the substance of written warnings: I prefer that each written disciplinary notice tell the whole story the past, the present and the future. The past includes a recitation of prior discipline in the progressive line; the present describes what occurred in this incident and the level of discipline being given; the future is a warning about what the next level of discipline will be if further discipline becomes warranted. Concerning future expectations, many employers have their own jargon to explain what is expected. I prefer immediate and lasting (or sustained) improvement because it covers the present and continues indefinitely. An employee who gets his act together for the short term, but then falls off again, has not made lasting improvement. The Seventh Commandment: Discipline shall be fair. Whats more, to earn the respect of the employees, it must be perceived to be fair. The penalty must fit the crime, so to speak. Often, companies divide offenses into felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are those serious offenses for which employees can be discharged immediately, while misdemeanors are all other offenses. Fairness involves considering many of the same factors that are considered in determining whether there has been industrial due process. These include: (1) the need for corrective action; (2) the past record of the employee, as well as whatever punishments the employee may be receiving, such as peer pressure, criminal prosecution, etc.; (3) the employees length of service; (4) whether the employee knew his conduct could lead to discipline; and (5) whether management contributed to the misconduct in which the employee engaged and thus was partly at fault. The Eighth Commandment: A thorough investigation shall precede the decision to discipline. Firing on the spot is generally inappropriate. Sending an employee home to allow for an investigation to take place is a much preferred approach. The decision to discipline should come after a thorough investigation. Conducting an investigation is an art. The nature and extent of any investigation must be defined by the circumstances. The Ninth Commandment: Discipline shall be consistent.

Absent mitigating circumstances, all employees should be treated alike when it comes to discipline. Although it is necessary to judge each situation on a case-by-case basis, arbitrariness in the administration of discipline can make an entire disciplinary system totally ineffective. It also enhances the likelihood that discipline will lead to a discrimination claim if the employee treated more harshly than others is a member of a protected class. The Tenth Commandment: A disciplinary system shall be flexible. Each and every case must be judged on its own merits. I am not suggesting that we abdicate the Ninth Commandment. Rather, some situations call for the exercise of discretion. For example, assume a company has a well-publicized written rule that an employee who either punches anothers time clock or has his time clock punched is subject to immediate discharge. One day a manager discovers that, for years, employees have taken turns punching in all other employees in that department. If the companys discipline system were inflexible, every employee in the department would have to be terminated. Obviously, since there was no fraud intended, such a result would be contrary to what the company hoped to achieve by promulgating its time-card rule in the first place and would lead to an absurd result. If there were 11 commandments, the Eleventh Commandment would be to train supervisors on the proper administration of discipline. Disciplining employees is not something that everyone knows how to do. An employer cannot assume that supervisors, because they are supervisors, know how to discipline. Discipline discharge, in particular leads to more employment litigation than any other employment action. Employers should train their supervisors so that they can use the tool of discipline effectively.

The most valuable asset any organization has today is not its facilities. Its not the inventory in the warehouse or on the production line. Its not healthy bottom line the company achieved last year. Its people. Its especially true in the communications and public relations arena where quality and quantity are in such short supply. Its an asset that is difficult to find, difficult to retain and difficult to manage. But if you manage the asset properly it can produce exceptional results for your company?and for you. Here are some simple guidelines you can follow to manage people more effectively, more easily and with better results. Think of them as your 10 commandments to better management: 1. Dont get into a rut thinking theres only one right way to do a job.

Judge by results rather than how the task was accomplished 2. Dont expect everyone to be the same. Dont look for clones of yourself because it can only limit the organizations -- and your -- growth potential. Aggressively look for people who have the values you respect most but dont expect them to be the same as yours. Surrounding yourself with people who think and perform like you may be a boost to the ego but diversity, and even chaos, can produce a more well-rounded organization and a multi-dimensional, multi-facet firm people want to associate with?want to deal with. 3. Dont give a lot of criticism. Very few people take criticism well. If the only inputs they receive from you are critical they soon stop trying to excel. Expect people to do well. When they do, praise them for their efforts and their performance. Soon youll have them producing results even beyond their own level of expectation. 4. Dont isolate yourself. Youre the manager. You cant be effective at the job behind closed doors. You cant do it by hiding behind voice mail, memos or email. Make yourself available to your people. Be accessible when they want your ideas, inputs, and thoughts. 5. Dont wait until the project is completed to give your feedback. It doesnt mean you have to constantly look over the individuals shoulder or check on what the team is doing but check in periodically. Get a snapshot update. Make certain the individual(s) is on the same wavelength as the company or organization and its goals/objectives. 6. Dont expect your staff to perform poorly. Expect people to be equal to the task. Expect them to perform in an outstanding manner and to produce the target results. Youll be surprised what happens when you believe they are competent. Most of the time trusting in their ability to deliver will produce the desired results. 7. Dont forget to tell staff members about your expectations, priorities and deadlines. There are very few clairvoyants in the world. People dont know if you dont communicate. Spell out the entire task. Setting goals, priorities and deadlines in your mind is not the same as telling people. 8. Dont do performance appraisals only once a year. In most organizations an annual appraisal is required by the firms HR guidelines. Forget the guidelines. Evaluate performance informally on a regular basis. Talk to employees about what

theyre doing, the problems they are experiencing, areas they need to focus on improving. Managing people is a lot like driving a car. You dont back out of your garage and do nothing until you pull into your office parking lot. You get from point A to point B successfully and safely by making a continuing series of minor adjustments based on an evaluation of the situation at hand. The same is true of managing people. 9. Dont be an autocratic leader. In yesterdays assembly lines performance was mediocre, at best, because people were told to punch in, do a specific job and punch out at the end of the day. Very quickly they settled into that mode producing very little value to the organization. When people were told to make the job their own, the change in attitude and results were spectacular. Ask employees for their input. Ask them for their suggestions. Find out their concerns and difficulties. Youll be pleasantly surprised that most people want to do not just a good job but a great job. 10. Dont push people to their limits. Dont expect them to function well over a long period without ample resources. People can give 150% when necessary and produce outstanding results. But even the best, most dedicated individual -- yourself included -- cant do it on a consistent day-in, day-out basis. After extended periods the mind shuts down; the body shuts down. People also dont perform well in a vacuum. They need information and inputs. Sometimes they need extra hands and minds. Give them the extra time, extra information, extra people they need to do the job properly. Today were operating in what the Federal government calls a full employment mode. Generation Xers and Yers are encouraged to -- and do -- change jobs frequently. Frequent job changes are no longer a negative on a resume as long as they show a steady upward progression or show an expansion of the individuals areas of expertise. Following the 10 commandments of managing wont ensure that youll get all the best people and retain them. It does mean, though, that youll have a better shot at developing a solid team of winners who will produce for your organization regardless of how long they stay with you.