Performance management has changed a great deal in the last decade or so. Old notions, such as the value of annual performance reviews, are continuing to erode. New ideas and practices, like one-on-ones and check-ins, are taking their place. However, where does discipline fit in with this new approach?

What Role Does Discipline Have in Modern Performance Management?

Progressive Discipline

For most managers and HR professionals, the term “progressive discipline” should be at least somewhat familiar. It’s a catch-all phrase used to describe the process of disciplining an employee for infractions that violate performance expectations or standards of conduct through a set of steps with increasing severity. For instance, the process might look something like the following:

  • Verbal warning
  • Counseling
  • Written warning
  • Coaching
  • Suspension and final warning
  • Termination

Of course, the process used in your own business may look different. Every organization develops its own flow that fits its needs and requirements. However, does this still play a role in performance management? We have shifted away from punitive actions against employees, at least for performance-related factors, so where does progressive discipline fit in?

The State of Discipline Today

Many organizations still maintain a progressive discipline process and use it in conjunction with performance management. Employees who fail to meet performance objectives receive a waning, coaching, and if they are unable to improve their performance, they are written up. In some cases, this results in the loss of pay raises. In others, it ultimately leads to termination.

However, the real question here is should progressive discipline play a role in performance management? For some managers, that is the proverbial “no brainer”. If there are no consequences, then how can you hold employees accountable for their failure to improve? Without a stick, how can you motivate good behavior?

This type of thinking is dangerously outdated.

The Danger of Progressive Discipline

While there is the semblance of logic to the idea that progressive discipline is necessary, the truth is that it does more harm than good. One of the key things to understand is that employees see progressive discipline processes as threats to their security and that of their family. That creates a negative environment that stifles performance and innovation.

Employees feel that they must be exceedingly careful in their day-to-day duties or they risk being cited for an infraction of policies or procedures. That takes additional time out of their day, which increases the chance of further censure related to failure to perform to expectations. It creates a vicious circle of negative feedback and an environment where employees are afraid.

In many instances, employee mistakes are not necessarily due to their own actions, but to unjust policies and procedures. Employers fail to realize that the fault actually lies outside the employee and their performance, and censure the employee. That person is then faced with the question of whether to try to improve performance even though it would likely break with more policies, or underperform and be cited for that.

Another problem with progressive discipline is the ease with which it can be misused. For instance, a manager who wants to speed the process of terminating an employee (rightly or wrongly) can easily use the process to move that worker out the door. Because of this ease of abuse, it becomes possible for managers to use it against workers who they may find undesirable, but who are participating in protected activities, such as union organizing or whistleblowing.

Finally, the system is also open to exploitation by employees. For instance, suppose an organization has an anti-absenteeism policy that kicks in with five unexcused absences in a rolling year. However, the same company also allows incidents to be removed from the employee’s record after some time. In this situation, it would be possible for an unethical employee to exploit the system, incurring just enough unexcused absences to trigger the start of discipline (usually a verbal warning), and then waiting until one of the absences “falls off” their record and then beginning the process again.

When Is Progressive Discipline Viable?

While punitive systems are disadvantageous for both employers and employees, there are situations in which they still work. These include:

  • Chronic tardiness
  • Clear policy violation (such as sexual harassment)
  • Chronic absenteeism (when monitored for systemic abuse)

What is to be done in the case of performance management, then? Really, it comes down to relaxing your rules and giving employees room to breathe. Most people genuinely want to do a good job and, if free of the fear of censure for mistakes, will do their best work happily.

When you realize this, it becomes possible to institute a discipline system that offers flexibility and can be customized to suit the situation. More and more, managers are realizing that there truly is no one-size-fits-all answer to these challenges. This sort of situation allows managers to take a one-at-a-time approach to discipline based on the specifics of an employee’s situation.

For instance, suppose two employees within the same department make the same mistake. However, one employee has shown exemplary performance for years and has never been cited or censured. The other employee has a history of underperforming and tardiness. Should these employees be censured in the same way?

Empowering your managers to take an employee-centric focus ensures that the solution fits the challenge. To use the example above, each employee may have made the same mistake, but probably for different reasons. Perhaps the first employee was unaware of the policy being violated. Maybe the second employee is actually in the wrong position and should be moved to one that’s a better fit for their interests, skills, and career goals.

Discipline Is Still Necessary

While the performance management process has changed a lot, discipline is still necessary. However, punitive systems that breed fear cause more damage than they are worth. It is important to create a performance coaching strategy that further develops employees rather than simply punishing them.

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