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 "decision-making 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, andperhaps most importantmakes you look good to a jury.

Why should we suspend the employee as a final step of our discipline system? Why not just issue a final written warning, or create a performance improvement plan, or place the individual on probation?

At the final step of a discipline procedure, when earlier formal discussions have failed to convince the employee to change behavior and return to fully acceptable performance, a dramatic gesture is required to clearly communicate that the end is at hand. No other final step has as much power as a formal suspension from work as a final disciplinary step because it:

- Allows a "cooling off" period.

- Communicates the seriousness of the issue.

- Demonstrates management's resolve to get the problem solved.

- Provides the employee with time to think.

- Previews unemployment.

- Is accepted by third parties as "sufficient notice." Tell Me More

The last item may be the most important. Today, almost any termination can be challenged. Typically, the first question that the arbitrator or unemployment hearing officer or other third party will ask is, "Was the employee aware of the seriousness of the situation? Did he fully understand that his job was at risk?" Arbitrators and others have universally accepted a suspension as "sufficient notice" that the individual's job is in jeopardy.

If a suspension is the best final step strategy, why should we pay the employee for the time he is away on suspension?

There are several reasons that it makes sense to pay the employee for the day he is away from work on decision-making leave. As a practice, the paid suspension:

- Changes the supervisor's role from adversary to coach.

- Demonstrates the company's good faith.

- Is more consistent with organizational values.

- Eliminates money as an issue.

- Doesn't harm the employee's family.

- Reduces anger, hostility, and the risk of workplace violence.

- Makes you look good to a jury.

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Again, the last reason may be the most important. If a discharged employee challenges his termination, then regardless of the facts and regardless of the law, the underlying issue will always be, Was the company fair? When the organization can demonstrate that not only did it have a series of well-documented, progressively more serious discussions with the employee, but it also gave the individual a day at its own expense to think about whether he could perform at a minimally acceptable level and the individual didn't live up to his own commitment, no stronger argument to support termination can be made.

Will Discipline Without Punishment work in my organization?

Yes. Discipline Without Punishment solves performance problems promptly and permanently by placing the responsibility for change exactly where it belongswith the individual. The core concept of giving an individual whose performance is not acceptable a day at the company's expense to make a final decision about whether he can meet the organization's expectations and is willing to make an affirmative commitment to excellence in every area of the job is appropriate at any level in the organization.

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The Discipline Without Punishment approach significantly reduces exposure to lawsuits and equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaints resulting from unfair or inconsistent disciplinary action. Once employees set their own standards and agree to them, it's a lot harder for them to say they didn't understand the rules. If a termination is ever challenged, the decision-making leave will demonstrate that your organization took every action possible to rehabilitate the individual.

Service and professional organizations frequently reject traditional progressive-discipline approaches as too "blue collar" for their sophisticated, better-educated workforce. As a result, they often end up with no system at all and handle everything on an inconsistent, ad hoc basis. Discipline Without Punishment is particularly appropriate for today's knowledge workers.

Traditional discipline approaches may indeed convince some problem employees to shape up, others to ship out. But punitive tactics will not produce employees who are genuinely committed to the goals of the enterprise and the policies and rules by which it operates. We can punish people into compliance. We cannot punish people into commitment.

The greatest flaw with the conventional progressive-discipline approach is simply that it asks too little. The traditional system takes a problem employee, punishes him, and leaves the organization with nothing more than a punished problem employee. The Discipline Without Punishment system requires the problem employee to become one of two things: either a good employee or an ex-employee.

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