Conflict | 8 MIN READ

Embrace a progressive discipline alternative in the workplace

Written by Jennifer Curry

No manager looks forward to disciplining employees, but this comes with the territory. Most managers, especially those who have had management thrust upon them suddenly, use the method they know best – progressive discipline (aka 3 strikes and you’re out). If it doesn’t work for your unique workplace or it just makes you cringe, you need to find a progressive discipline alternative that is a better fit. 

Here’s the thing – the term discipline is unpleasant. It makes us think of being sent to the principal’s office – except now you’re the principal. Rather than viewing discipline this way, it is helpful to remember that the discipline (when done effectively) helps both you and the employee in the long run. 

You aren’t disciplining your employees because it’s fun. You aren’t “out to get them.” You are disciplining an employee because you hope to alter the employee’s behavior for the better. If you can help your employees develop soft skills or grow professionally, this is better for them and you. They get mentorship and coaching. You get a more engaged, productive member of the team – and you save money. 

Employee turnover is costly, so you want to avoid firing employees when you can rehabilitate behaviors and save money, instead. According to Smarp, “It costs businesses $4,129 on average to hire new talent, and around $986 to onboard the new hire. That means you lose over $5,000 each time an employee walks out the door, not to mention the unquantifiable cost of losing an experienced employee!”

More productivity, engagement, and money? It’s easy to see why workplace discipline is a must.

Why Progressive Discipline is the Norm

Progressive discipline has been the go-to approach for workplace discipline since the 1930s. It is what most of us are the most familiar with; therefore, it is what most of us do. With progressive discipline, the use of punishments escalates (or progresses) with each bad behavior. Many businesses follow this model: a verbal warning, a written warning, suspension, and finally termination.

It’s basically three strikes and you’re out. SHRM claims, “It is rooted in the decades-old mindset that treating people progressively worse will cause them to improve, or at least it will protect the organization from liability when they don't.” But it has been used for decades because many managers find it effective. Not only is there a clear paper trail for legal protection, but many employees do respond out of fear of termination. 

Times When a Progressive Discipline Alternative is a Better Fit 

The truth is that this traditional approach isn’t black and white, and it doesn’t work for every situation. For example, an employee who struggles with tardiness may respond to progressive discipline, whereas an employee who struggles with collaboration won’t. Writing up an employee for not collaborating is not nearly as effective as providing soft skills training so that she learns the benefits of collaborating.

In a report by Harvard Business Review, a labor relations manager explained why he shifted away from the traditional method to a progressive discipline alternative. Here’s his story:

“The lineman’s confrontational behavior caused the working foreman to grab the lineman by his shirt collar and shake him severely. This is unacceptable behavior for a working foreman, and he was suspended for 13 days. I had no choice under the existing policy but to support that suspension, but I never felt good about it. All I did was penalize an employee and his family; I did not change his behavior in any way. I believe he would have done the same thing again.”

As times have changed, so have discipline methods. While the progressive discipline method is still the most popular tactic in the workplace, you can find a progressive discipline alternative that is a better fit for your workplace chemistry. Or you can create your own progressive discipline alternative using a combination of the ideas below.

Embracing a Cooperative Performance Method

Unlike the traditional approach where a manager points out a problem and issues a reprimand, a cooperative performance method is a favorable progressive discipline alternative because it encourages collaboration between the manager and the employee. Instead of it looking like a parent disciplining a child, a cooperative performance method allows the employee and manager to work together towards a solution.

Ultimately, a cooperative performance method focuses on resolving performance issues rather than merely documenting problems. Sandler Training explains, “By discussing the situation together, you give them a chance to create their own correctional path, which is more likely to be followed than orders given without discussion. This lets the employee work out issues in their own way.”

Let’s consider this situation with an employee struggling with tardiness. You pull the employee aside privately and address the issue. However, instead of issuing a warning with the possibility of the warning progressing to further discipline if the tardiness continues, you look for a solution together. 

For example, when speaking with an employee, you look for possible causes for tardiness. Should you realize that the employee is struggling to make it on time because they have to drop their kids off at school around the same time, the two of you decide they can shift their start and end time by thirty minutes. This solution works for both of you. The employee no longer feels stressed trying to be in two places at the same time, and you get more productivity.

Developing a Goal-Setting Framework

Another cooperative progressive discipline alternative involves developing a goal-setting framework, such as OKRs (objectives and key results). OKRs, which are used by companies such as Spotify and Google, are wonderful for encouraging business and performance goals. As a team, you decide your objective and then identify which key results will determine if you have achieved your goal.

I will ______ as measured by ______.

Whereas OKRs traditionally focus on team efforts, you can easily adapt the same methodology for individual behaviors. Have struggling employees define positive objectives and outlines how they can measure achievements using key results. If employees understand that their behavior plays an important role in achieving the key results, they will be more apt to modify their behavior. 

For example, “I will make customers feel welcome in our store as measured by a higher percentage of positive customer reviews and commissions.” If employees are rude to customers, this will make it difficult to achieve this OKR.

Adopting a Positive Discipline Approach

Another progressive discipline alternative flips the traditional method on its head by focusing on the employee’s positive behaviors instead. Positive discipline has been growing in popularity in parenting, education, and the workplace. It focuses on praising positive behaviors and revolves around coaching or mentoring rather than punishing. For example, this may look like praising an employee in private about regular attendance and acknowledging their efforts to show up to work with a good attitude every day rather than lecturing about tardiness issues.

A positive discipline approach does not mean ignoring issues. Instead, it involves utilizing a different tone and approach to these types of conversations. HR Daily Advisor explains, “The positive approach would move toward having more discussions that act as reminders and reinforcements of desired behaviors rather than evolving to written reprimands.” These reminders or reinforcements include mentorship and coaching.

This progressive discipline alternative also means boosting workplace chemistry by creating an environment of praise, which will encourage employees to do their best because they feel appreciated rather than out fear of punishment or termination. 

According to Sandler Training, “Positive discipline reinforces good behaviors and lets employees know that you are aware of the good work they have done. This is a much more active management style and forms a stronger bond between you and your employees. Practicing positive discipline shows that you value the employee and motivates them to improve without having to resort to fear tactics.”

Encouraging Mentorship

Take positive discipline a step further by encouraging mentorship. If you do not already have a mentorship program, it is time to develop one. This is especially important when you are looking for a progressive discipline alternative. In this case, you can use mentors to help rehabilitate employee behavior.

Let’s say you have some employees that are struggling with communicating. Maybe they are condescending to customers, and as a result, customers have called the manager to complain about their attitude. Rather than calling them in for a formal meeting and writing them up, pair them with a mentor who is known for communicating well and making all customers feel respected.

Showing Not Telling

No one likes being lectured, but workplace discipline often veers towards receiving a “talking to.” Instead of telling employees what they did wrong, show them. Where possible, get the employee in a position to witness and possibly interface with those who were impacted by their behavior. For example, read customer feedback due to similar behaviors or lack of delivery, or share parts of reporting that show the negative impact.

Note – Showing not telling should not work as a shame tactic. Ultimately, the goal is to let them see how important they are in the puzzle. Instead of focusing on what they did wrong, you focus on the impact of behaviors.

Changing How You View Workplace Discipline

Ultimately, the best progressive discipline alternative is one that looks for growth opportunities rather than punishment. However, it is still discipline. It includes having clear rules in the workplace that are enforced consistently. It utilizes regular performance reviews and improvement plans, with the goal of addressing potential issues before discipline is needed. When these are standard operating procedures, discipline is only needed in extreme circumstances.  

When All Else Fails…

Unfortunately, there will be times when an employee simply doesn’t want to adjust or change behavior patterns, even when you have tried every progressive discipline alternative possible. In these cases, it is important to discuss the issue with colleagues (HR, when possible) to verify that you have done all you can to rehabilitate the behaviors, encourage growth, and have taken an objective measurable track to address the behaviors. These measures should be documented to legally protect the company as best as possible.

Last updated on March 3, 2021

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