Using Employee Discipline to Improve Performance

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Employee discipline doesn't have to be a dirty word. This lesson explores the nature of the discipline process, and it will outline specific positive and negative methods of reinforcement.

Don't Dodge Discipline

''Spare the rod and spoil the child.'' This old adage was used to express the sentiment that a failure to discipline would result in a child that was insolent and incorrigible. Although it doesn't quite work that way in business, the truth is still applicable. In fact, provided the right way, discipline should be something that is an overall positive experience for the manager and the employee.


Thinking of discipline as merely punishing an out-of-line employee is an obsolete paradigm.

Common Reasons Why Managers Fail at Employee Discipline

Discipline Takes Time

One of the most common reasons why workplace discipline is ineffective is a manager's failure to engage the mechanism at all. In many cases, the lack of clear expectations hamstrings the process, before it can even be given a chance to work. The entire disciplinary process will collapse without clear expectations.

Discipline is (Unnecessarily) Uncomfortable

For many managers, employee discipline is simply uncomfortable. When a manager is promoted from within, it's extremely awkward to be reminded by a former coworker how many times you broke the same policy that they are now being disciplined for. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, a manager cannot avoid discipline without hurting the organization.

Administering Discipline Doesn't Need Hard, Cold Policy Violations

Effective discipline doesn't rely on policy alone. New managers should be clear that in addition to enforcing the provisions of the policy manual, they will expect behavior that is consistent with the company's mission, and values. For many managers, this component of the disciplinary process is an essential one. It lets employees know, from day one, that behaving in a manner that pushes the edge of the policy envelope isn't acceptable.

Let's illustrate a few of these problems, and their solutions, with a hypothetical example.

Examples of Effective and Ineffective Workplace Discipline

Deficient Discipline

In our example, we will follow an employee named Devon, who has recently been passed over for a promotion to a managerial role. After being passed over, Devon seems hell-bent on making his new manager's life miserable.

Positive Interventions Using Discipline

This is the moment of truth for Devon's new manager. If she fails to call out his behavior and outline the expectations for improvement, Devon's attitude will monopolize his new manager's time. To prevent this, Devon's new manager needs to set the tone immediately, by having a face-to-face meeting about expectations moving forward.

Positive reinforcement rewards behavior that should be repeated.

Here's one way this conversation might play out:

  • ''Devin, I appreciate that it's hard to be passed over for a job that you really wanted. Now that the decision has been made, you can expect me to support you as your manager, and I expect the same support from you moving forward.''
  • ''I'm already aware that I will be tasked with enforcing policies that we probably broke together from time to time. In my new role, that's not relevant. Moving forward, you can expect me to adhere to policy, and I will expect the same in return.''
  • ''Finally, it's important to understand that regardless of our positions in the company, we are both still required to fulfill our mission, and practice our values. Any behaviors that don't support that mission, are not consistent with our values and will need to be adjusted. Moving forward, you can expect that I will do my best to make only decisions that support our values. We can both expect to model those values, regardless of whether there is a material policy violation, or not.''

The meeting itself is the start of effective discipline because it is laying out clear expectations. In her first statement, the new manager validates the potential for uncomfortable interaction but then renders it ineffective. Finally, the new manager clearly explains that a failure to adhere to the company's values, still constitutes unacceptable behavior, even if there isn't a page in the policy manual related to that specific situation.

Methods for Applying Discipline

The obvious hope is that following the conversation with his new manager, Devon will resume meeting the company's expectations. If this doesn't happen, his new supervisor must take action. However, not all action taken in the disciplinary process needs to be negative.

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