A Positive Approach to Employee Discipline

Traditionally, methods for maintaining discipline have been punitive in nature. The relatively new concept of a non-punitive positive discipline system is winning increasing acceptance among many employers. The purpose of this method is to enable employees to truly confront their performance or attendance problems and take responsibility for their actions.

To be effective, disciplinary action should emphasize correcting the problem rather than punishing the offender. It should maintain the employee's dignity and self-respect. It should provide for increasingly serious steps if the problem is not resolved, and it should ultimately result in a change in the employee's behavior and performance.

Like traditional approaches, the positive discipline approach involves a number of formal steps that increase in seriousness. But unlike punitive disciplinary systems, the positive approach emphasizes reminders of expected performance — not warnings or reprimands for misconduct.

Step 1: Oral Reminder — The first step in the positive discipline approach is a meeting between a supervisor and the employee to discuss the problem. The supervisor tells the employee the reason for the rule that has been violated, tells the employee the specific changes that are required, and expresses confidence that the employee will correct the problem and the expectation that no further action will be needed. No record of the meeting is placed in the employee's file. This is communicated to the employee, hopefully providing a strong incentive for improvement.

Step 2: Written Reminder — If the problem continues, the supervisor again talks to the employee — seriously, but without threats. The supervisor tells the employee what is expected and asks the employee to confirm that he or she understands what changes must be made. At the end of the discussion, the supervisor tells the employee that a written summary of their conversation will be placed in the employee's file. It's recommended that the employee be asked to sign the report of the documented discussion.

Step 3: Decision-Making Leave — In traditional discipline systems, the next step involves suspending the offending employee for several days. In the positive discipline approach, the supervisor tells the employee to remain at home the following day and to use that time to make a final decision as to whether she or he can meet the organization's standards. The employee is told that the organization wants to keep him or her as a productive member of the work force, but that the decision is up to the employee — and future violations will result in termination. The employee is told to report back to the supervisor after the decision-making leave day to let the supervisor know his or her decision. The employee may be asked to develop a plan for improving his or her performance. Upon returning to work, the results of the meeting with the supervisor should be documented, signed by the employee, and placed in the employee's personnel file.

As a good-faith demonstration of the organization's interest in keeping the employee, he or she is paid for the leave day. This reduces the employee's hostility and anger.

According to users of this method of discipline, employees take the one-day leave and commitment decision seriously. Most make a concerted effort to change. It's the difference in emphasis between this method and the more authoritarian approach, and stressing the individual's responsibility for his or her own behavior, that produces the desired change.

Obviously, this approach to discipline may not be appropriate in every situation. There are certain flagrant violations of policy and acceptable behavior which will warrant immediate action, including disciplinary layoff or termination. However, because this positive approach reduces conflict and fosters cooperation between supervisors and employees, it is gaining popularity.

SESCO Management Consultants is available for assistance should you have questions about this issue. You may contact us by phone at 423-764-4127 or by email at sesco@sescomgt.com .