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Employee Discipline… An Enlightened Perspective

Sometimes employees chose other priorities over us. Sometimes employees engage in behavior that we don’t like. They don’t show up for work. They do nasty things to others around them. They make decisions in direct conflict with the organizations’ goals. That makes us mad. It’s not fair. Others suffer. We want to protect those who are working with us. Consequences must be incurred.

Time to pull out the “employee discipline” manual.

Many a frustrated manager is instinctively compelled toward a punitive solution to affecting work performance or work behavior issues. The typical reaction is an emotional one when an employee lets us down. My point is that “punitive” has no place in the workplace. Time and time again, punitive disciplinary processes can create more trouble than they are designed to control.

“Am I your employer? Or your mother?”

I often ask these questions when coaching managers on effective discipline. Think about this a minute.

Who are we to be ‘disciplining’ anyone? We are employers, not our employees’ parents. We engage in a professional, business relationship with other well intended, mature individuals. We pay these well-intended adults to work with us in a common quest for a common good. We coach, we encourage, we teach, and we provide clear direction to those whom we employ.

We are not legal guardians to our employees. It is not our role to affect their fundamental behavioral formation. Our role is to communicate a standard of professional conduct and behavior, and live up to it. Do we really think its our responsibility to teach employees to show up to work on time? Or be nice to their co-workers? Or not to steal? Or harass or discriminate against others? The fundamental behavioral programming of our employees took place long before we accepted them into our organizations.

Suspension.. the Employers’ “Time Out’”

Suspension is an incredibly universal form of punitive, disciplinary action. From dishwashers and dock workers to school superintendents and corporate officers, all have been subject to this employer directed disciplinary thrashing. Behavior may change, but rarely does such action results in an improved, motivated and enlightened employment relationship.

Suspension is:

  • when an employer temporarily removes an employee from the workplace (vacation)
  • when others in the department have to make up the additional workload (dumped on)
  • when an employee becomes publicly humiliated because everyone in the workplace now knows they were bad (personal attack)
  • when a manager is trying to force compliance or commitment to the employment relationship by sending the employee home (to their room) without pay (supper)
  • when an example needs to be set so others don’t follow the same pattern of conduct (machismo)
  • more fodder for a plaintiff attorney to criticize your judgment and consistency in handling employment matters equitably and objectively

Nobody wins. Generally, the goal of a suspension is to make the point that negative job performance issues are job threatening should they be repeated. The reality of such action is to inflict personal loss against an individual who chooses to perform their duties or demonstrates priorities in conflict with an employers expectations. The operative word here is “personal,” because that’s just what happens when punitive disciplinary action is used. Things get personal. And, oh, doesn’t the fun start now!

What options do we have?

Our options for affecting positive change in employee work behaviors or conduct are, frankly, limited. As they should be. Employment is a business relationship first, much like our relationships with customers and vendors. To that end, there are only a few simple options for employers to consider regarding unacceptable behavior or conduct in the workplace:

  1. Clearly communicate to the employee your disappointment in their failure to live up to your expected standards of professional conduct.
  2. Formally re-communicate, coach, teach and assist the employee to live up to the standards you expect
  3. Respectfully end the employment relationship upon validation of another infraction.

We are not parents, and we are not jurists. Efforts to establish punitive or disciplinary processes to affect behavioral change within our organizations may make managers feel better, but rarely result in the development of an effective employment relationship, or an enlightened and successful workforce.


High performing teams have high performing standards and clear expectations for all their members. Appropriate workplace behaviors and conduct are well communicated and selected into the organization during a properly executed hiring processes. Strong leaders make sound, fair, and decisive decision about negative employment matters, and move on.

Standardized disciplinary processes, by their very nature, suggest a punitive approach to modifying employee conduct or decision making. Employment is a business relationship first. Punitive has no place in a professional business relationship. When employers cross the line into “employee parenting,” things get personal. Leave the parenting duties to someone else… you’ve got a business to run.

Michael Tracy is owner and managing principal of OMNI Employment Management Services, L.L.C., located in Overland Park. OMNI is a human resources consulting firm providing comprehensive human resources consulting services to small and medium-size companies.

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