Progressive Discipline and Culture:  Think before You Spank

This week in HR, I’m turning my attention to something very important, discipline and documentation. I went to my alma mater to retrieve an out-of-print Performance Management book that a former professor left for me. I got lost in the new business school building. So, I called an administrator for assistance. They met me at the door of their office area—without a mask.

3D person getting it wrong with a red cross - isolated over a white background

I wasn’t remotely taken aback nor bothered by their masklessness. I followed the administrator through the labyrinthine building and as we walked, they suddenly burst into an effusive apology and they asked me not to report the infraction. Literally – “Please don’t tell anyone that I met you without a mask.” in a tremulous voice. I wasn’t offended—moreover, I refuse to operate at odds with my neighbor, tattling on them, policing them – where people with good intentions naturally and occasionally miss the mark and pay for their mistakes with discipline. I refuse to work in such an environment, let alone enforce that kind of dynamic as an HR leader.

So, I started thinking, the school must have a rigid mask policy, onerous at least for this administrator. Indeed, as I returned to my vehicle, book in hand, I noticed extensive Mask Up signage – indoor and out. While I appreciate the policy and its enforcement program, having an environment where coworkers or students are encouraged to report perpetrators seems a tad unreasonable, if not punitive and culturally deleterious.

A worker who accidentally fails to wear their mask around other masked people for 1 to 2 minutes, shouldn’t be worried they’ll lose their job, if it’s truly unintentional. That intractable or merciless approach isn’t sustainable and certainly does little to foster strong culture.

Personal opinions aside, there are orders from the Louisiana State Government and additional mandates in some GNO parishes related to mask-wearing in the workplace or public areas. So, I started thinking, how do employers promote a safe working environment these days without mucking up whatever positive culture is left after one of the most difficult years in modern history? How do businesses even get workers back into the office?

While on vacay last week, I received a request from a client for assistance with an employee relations matter. On multiple occasions, an employee entered common areas without a mask. Evidently, the employee had been warned verbally on multiple occasions to mask up in common areas in addition to signage that reiterated the policy. I was asked to provide a final warning template. My first question: Had the employee been given any previous warning in writing? Next: Had the employees been advised of the client’s progressive discipline sequence? Had the employee given any explanation for their infractions? Finally, I asked if the employee had given any medical reason for their behavior or if they’d requested any accommodation. The answer to all of those quandaries was, “No.”

Nothing about the client’s plan to give a final warning was off kelter per se, but I encouraged the HR rep to schedule a meeting to discuss any objections pursuant to the policy. When employees have problems complying or aligning, there are at least 9 common factors that leaders might gather if they are listening:

  1. Are employee conduct policies published and readily accessible?
  2. Has sufficient training been conducted to surface and resolve questions or concerns that employees have related to policies and process?
  3. Has the employee submitted any special accommodation requests?
  4. If the employee has a sincere and well-defended position for non-compliance, is there any other accommodation that can be made? In other words, is compromise a viable approach to resolving the issue? Or would compromising weaken the employer’s position? Could the employee in this case work from home?
  5. What is the objective of the policy? Has compliance with the policy been shown to have any impact on performance, the mission of the organization, and the team with which the employee engages most?
  6. Most workers want to be good employees. If the employee’s performance is poor, documentation in the form of warnings is a good step to mitigating the problem. But oversight of the employee, expectations, and documentation should never appear unfairly targeted. Relatedly, always question if your employees are swimming in policies (be empathetic)? There is such a thing as “rule fatigue.” Be careful about entering that overwhelming zone of too much. Sometimes, we create policies because we just like telling people what to do, and if we know that about ourselves, we can check that unsavory quality (I’m speaking from experience).
  7. Is there commitment from leaders to the core values and procedures of the organization? In other words, do leaders do as they say?
  8. Is the leader prepared to lose an employee if noncompliance persists? If not, the matter should never be cemented into a policy in the first place.
  9. Finally, is noncompliance with an isolated policy part of a broader unruly trend in the workplace? If so, you have a cultural problem that has a way of getting uglier the longer it is left unaddressed. And key insight here: The way to fix cultural problems isn't always to add more policies.

I encourage HR professionals and leaders to have sincere conversations with workers, especially when there is a performance problem. It’s the only way to achieve buy-in and to build rapport. Think How to Win Friends & Influence People, not I Need to Be Right (that’s the title of my forthcoming autobiography). And think of discipline as a last resort, because discipline rarely leads to what we want: Engagement, happy employees, and a safe working environment.

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