Why It’s Time To Kill Progressive Discipline

disciplineProgressive discipline does not work. It’s a system of employee discipline in which penalties increase with repeat violations. Traditionally, progressive discipline contains various steps or stages: verbal warnings, written warnings, suspension, and termination. The process focuses on the incident or outcome. It applies a “one size fits all” framework to situations that must stand on their own merits. By focusing on the result, as opposed to the behaviors that led to the result, progressive discipline may bring about action against a given employee, but it often fails to understand or correct the underlying root cause. If we can understand why an incident occurred (i.e., the behaviors that led up to the incident), we have a much better chance of arriving at a long-term solution.

To move away from progressive discipline toward a far more effective corrective action paradigm, we must first change our thinking. Progressive discipline focuses on the outcome and therefore shoehorns all mistakes into a rigid model. In a behavior-based employee development model, the fundamental question is: “Was the incident the result of an honest mistake or reckless behavior?” Once you’ve made this inquiry and understand the underlying behaviors, then you can truly develop an effective corrective action plan.

Here are a few bottom-line benefits you will realize by moving toward a behavior-based coaching model:

Fix the underlying problem: If you conclude that the incident was the result of an honest mistake, there’s absolutely no reason to invoke the “strike one, strike two” mentality. Instead, managers and employees sit next to one another, not across the table. They look for individual and systemic fixes. The individual and organization may share responsibility. As an example, progressive discipline will hold an employee accountable for failing to follow a process. Did it ever occur to us that the process was not clear? In a coaching environment, we ask whether our processes are clear and understandable. We look at all the action that led to the incident. We conduct this in partnership with our employees. We are committed to continuous improvement, not discipline, if an honest mistake was made.

Build trust and morale: A coaching environment makes it easier to build trust. Employees are less apt to be defensive. The dreaded process of “strikes” is not triggered. When employees know that they will not be disciplined for making an honest mistake, they will be more open. The employees will partner in the long-term fix.

“A behavior-based corrective model allows us to arrive at termination decisions without counting strikes.”

Concerned managers understand that progressive discipline kills morale. If an employee has performed well over a period and then makes a mistake, the severity of progressive discipline may seem disproportionate. It may cause high-performing employees to dust off their resumes.

By advocating an abandonment of progressive discipline, I am not suggesting that we ignore common-sense practices. For example, the coaching event must be documented. The documentation does not need to be on a strict form containing needless legalese. Also, if an employee committed an honest mistake, remedial training and other corrective action may be warranted.

Know when one strike is enough: Reckless behavior must have its own set of consequences. If an employee acts recklessly, a verbal or written warning may be wholly inadequate. One strike may be enough for immediate termination. Yet, I’ve seen managers carefully follow each step of the outdated progressive discipline model. This ultimately means we are keeping misaligned employees in our organizations longer than we should.

A behavior-based corrective model allows us to arrive at termination decisions without counting strikes. We do not have to ask: “Was this the employee’s third strike in six months or six years?”  We will know when coaching failed and when it is time to move on.  We have greater flexibility to act when warranted instead of waiting for that last strike.

Many progressive discipline programs allow for a strike to fall of the employee’s record after a period.  This is a bad practice.  Let’s say that an employee engaged in a dangerous action. A year passes, and the “strike” falls off the employee’s record. Then the employee again commits another dangerous action.  That means the progressive discipline systems starts over, when the employee should be terminated.

Empower managers: Progressive discipline robs managers of their judgment. Employee development cannot fall into a cookie-cutter model. This is exactly what happens when managers are forced to operate in a rigid system. To avoid triggering disciplinary action against an otherwise good employee, managers may work around the system. In such an event, issues remain unsolved. In the behavior-based system, managers must spend time understanding what led to the incident. Only then can they develop a tailored action plan. Allowing a manager to coach in the face of an honest mistake allows him or her to execute more effectively.  The “honest mistake versus reckless behavior” determination forces managers and HR professionals to use their judgment, and this is critical. Employee development is all about fairness and judgment.  You will not find that in a process manual.

The much-needed thought shift from a rigid discipline system to behavior-based coaching will create alignment and a commitment to continuous improvement. Employees will be less threatened. They will spend less time thinking defensively and more time adjusting behaviors. A system of coaching recognizes that both the company and its employees are on a journey with no finish line. We’re all going to make mistakes. Coaching creates an environment of greater accountability, recognizing that we all need coaching, from our senior managers to our front-line employees. A behavior-based system also allows companies to weed out bottom performers more quickly than may be found using an inflexible, multistep process.

Brian Fielkow
Corporate culture and management advisor Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies. With a doctorate in law from Northwestern University School of Law, he serves as owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a logistics company in Houston that specializes in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight.

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