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4 ways managers screw up progressive discipline

Most companies have established a system of progressive discipline for dealing with employees with performance or behavior problems. Too often, though, unthinking managers derail the process.

The tough truth is that any policy’s only as good as the people who have to enforce it on a day-to-day basis. Managers are only human (despite what their underlings may occasionally think), and, like the rest of us, they’re susceptible to acting on ingrained personality quirks.

Here are four pitfalls that trip up many supervisors as they try to correct employee problems:

1. Teaching them a lesson

The most common mistake managers make in the progressive discipline process: They think of it as punishment for the employee.

That’s a giant misconception – and it’s often the underlying catalyst for legal problems that crop up if the discipline process ultimately leads to the employee’s termination.

Managers who see discipline as punishment bring an unnecessarily adversarial attitude to the table in the misguided belief that the threat of negative consequences will somehow translate into a positive outcome.

In rare cases, that approach can work – probably more often in times like these, when the job market’s ultra-tight.

But even those “wins” may sour when employment opportunities open up. Employees have long memories, and the old adage’s true: “Employees don’t leave companies, they leave bad bosses.”

The alternate approach is to look at discipline as an educational process – an opportunity to improve.

That means the manager and the employee work together to solve the problem.

The goal is to find a way for managers and employees to collaborate in identifying causes of problematic behavior (or substandard performance), and then make a plan to solve those problems.

2. Acting too little, too late

Many managers are focused on one thing: Productivity.

They don’t want to deal with disciplinary problems – either behavioral or performance-related – any more than employees want to hear about them.

It’s easy to let small things slide. And bringing up minor problems sometimes seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

Who wants to stir the pot when it’s already hard enough to make monthly goals?

The last thing managers need is a morale problem. They’re already stressed as it is.

It’s an understandable rationale … but it’s fatally flawed. Those small issues rarely go away by themselves – indeed, they almost always get worse.

And by not taking action, managers send employees the message that undesirable behavior will be accepted or – worse yet – won’t even been noticed.

Delay has another adverse impact on the manager. As the problem worsens, it’s common for managers to build up resentment against the employee – and that can warp the supervisor’s perspective in a way that makes it difficult to eventually deal with the issue in an objective, positive way.

3. Taking the nuclear option

Managers who drag their feet on dealing with employee problems tend to wait until things get so bad they must act – and often, the action they take is extreme.

This tactic results in two unintended consequences: First, the punishment often appears overly harsh to the employee and his or her co-workers – not exactly a morale-builder.

Second, by exercising this “nuclear option,” the manager guts the progressive discipline process the company’s gone to great lengths to design and implement. The opportunity for a well-thought out, step-by-step approach to solving the problem is largely gone.

The moral of the story: Managers should deal with problems as early as possible, tailoring sanctions to fit the offenses. Many small problems can be eliminated by a quick managerial response – and if they’re not, the supervisor has the progressive discipline process to fall back on.

The delayed, unduly harsh response to a problem paints the manager in a corner, limiting future options. That could lead to the loss of a potentially productive employee.

4. Not digging deep enough

Sometimes, managers are so busy and so stressed out they simply issue a proclamation to an employee: “Don’t be late again.” “From now on, I expect you to finish X amount of work during the day.”

While the desired outcomes are probably reasonable, there may well be equally reasonable causes for the employee’s tardiness or temporary lack of performance.

Many times, threats or managerial edicts have little effect on behavior, simply because they don’t address the root cause of the problem.

Again, it’s this type of situation progressive discipline policies are designed to address. A collaborative approach to the problem – in something as low-key as a one-on-one between manager and employee – has a far better chance for success than a flat edict from the supervisor.

Adapted from: The Executive Report, Disciplining Employees: The Right Way to Do It, available at

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