Anyone who has been in the workforce for any length of time is familiar with the traditional discipline model. First you get a verbal warning, followed by the first written warning (on the heals of the statement “I’m going to have to write you up.”), which can escalate to a final warning before termination.
At one company I worked for we used to joke about how many final warnings someone would get before termination. Employees would know they probably had a final final final warning before they were let go because supervisors would rather suffer through a low performing employee rather than have no one on the job. The work didn’t go away even if they employee did.
There are many reasons why employees under-perform. Often it starts at the hiring process – we simply hire people out of desperation (butts-in-seats mentality), then suffer the consequences when we discover it was a bad fit. Whether the issue is quality, attendance, productivity, or some other undesirable behavior, managers have to address the poor performance or it will erode the organization’s effectiveness.
That’s where the traditional model of employee discipline comes in. We need something more from the employee, so we “write them up” to bring attention to the seriousness of the problem and tell them how they need to change their behavior to get on board.
But the very premise of the traditional discipline approach is flawed. It’s based on a punitive model that treats employees like children (or criminals) who need to be “punished” in order to get them in line with expectations. This model puts the burden on the supervisor to come up with the right punishment or solution, and the employee’s job is to comply.
But a better way exists. Developed by Dick Grote more than 30 years ago, the Discipline without Punishment approach treats employees as business partners and puts the burden on them to close the gap between desired and actual performance. It’s pretty simple, really. Instead of a series of formal write-ups, ultimately escalating to a humiliating and tension-filled termination, the Discipline without Punishment approach works like this:
First, you start with informal transactions; discussions about what is expected and observations about the employees performance. You sit down like adults and talk about ways for the employee to improve, relying on them to come up with their own solutions rather than dictating a fix for them. These positive contacts often do the trick, as the employee is able to address performance gaps in a non-threatening way.
If issues still exist the supervisor moves on to a series of reminders. These more formal discussions document expectations and provide data to illustrate the gap. Again, the employee is asked to develop their solution, and the supervisor adds more details to ensure the plan will work and that progress can be measured.
Finally, if things don’t improve enough, the employee is placed on a decision-making leave. They are sent home, with pay, with their job for the day to decide whether or not they want to stay employed with the organization. If they do, then they have a more detailed plan, timeline, and accountability structure that they must adhere to until they have proved themselves.
If they decide they either can’t or won’t live up to the expected performance levels, then they separate from the company. Both sides have done their part. It’s a much more fair and respectful way to improve performance. After all, the goal of a disciplinary process is to get the employee to meet expectations, not to get them out the door. Sure, both parties may determine that the fit isn’t great, but going through this series of transactions provides a confirmation of this without making the employee feel like a failure.