The purpose of discipline in the workplace is to keep employees under control. You may have a great team working for you, but sooner or later a bad apple will probably turn up. Even good employees may be tempted to cross a line once in a while. Disciplining employees who screw up or act unethically gives them an incentive not to repeat the error. It can also protect you from liability.

The Meaning of Employee Discipline

Employee discipline has traditionally been defined as a way for management to maintain its authority and to control employee behavior. The traditional approach focused on punishment for misbehavior such as a reprimand, a layoff or termination.

The drawbacks to this disciplinary approach are that it makes managers look like tyrants, bullying their subordinates. Many managers dislike the idea of doling out punishment, and so they postpone taking action until there's no other option. That's not good for the employee or the company.

An alternative interpretation of the meaning of employee discipline is that it should focus on training rather than penalties. Managers should collaborate with workers, training them until they've internalized the company's disciplinary standards. Punitive discipline is the last resort.

Why Discipline Matters

The purpose of discipline in the workplace isn't just to get employees to fix their problems. It's important because it also protects the company legally. Suppose you discover one of your subordinates is sexually harassing their coworkers but you take no action to discipline them. If the harassment victim sues, your lack of action could make the company liable.

Another legal reason for the importance of discipline at the workplace is to protect against wrongful termination lawsuits. If you can show the disciplinary rules are clear and consistently enforced, a court's more likely to agree that the firing was fair.

Employee discipline is also about building your team up, not just punishing them. It's a tool you can use to communicate your values, letting employees know that certain behaviors, such as bullying or dishonesty, are not tolerated. That can lead to a healthier, safer workplace, the kind that encourages employee loyalty.

What Is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive disciplinary systems start with collaboration, then escalate to more punitive steps if that doesn't work.

  • First, you contact the employee about the problem. Identify the issue and say how you want them to correct it. In these early sessions, the emphasis is usually on advice and guidance rather than doling out punishment. Give the employee a timeline to fix things, and let them know things will escalate if they miss the deadline.

  • If the initial discussions don't produce any results, notify the employee formally, in writing, that they haven't fixed the problems. Let them know the potential penalties if they don't shape up. At this point, you may want to set up some sort of performance review process they have to complete to keep their job.

  • If the employee still doesn't improve, it's time to play hardball, either suspending them or terminating them. 

In rare cases, such as employee theft or threats of violence, you may want to jump to termination without progressing through the earlier steps.

What Is Positive Discipline?

The positive disciplinary method places as much emphasis on what the employee is doing right as what they're doing wrong. When the employee and their supervisor have their first conversation, the manager points out the areas in which the employee meets or exceeds expectations. The supervisor also discusses the problems, but the positive parts of the conversation can make discipline more palatable.

The benefits of positive discipline in the organization are that it can give an employee the feeling they're a good worker with some flaws, rather than a problem. They're not being punished, they're working together with management to improve. That can boost the employee's morale and give them enthusiasm to improve and fix their problems.

Positive discipline and progressive discipline can work well together. The first meetings with the employee emphasize positive discipline, discussing good stuff as well as the bad. If this approach doesn't yield results, the company can escalate to more punitive measures.

Doing Discipline Right

If your team thinks the purpose of discipline in the workplace is to punish people management dislikes while letting your pet employees slide, you have a problem. The importance of discipline at the workplace is lost if you don't apply it consistently and fairly. This has to start before you discipline anyone.

  • Make your standards clear. Your employees can't follow the rules if they don't know them. Your employee handbook should spell out your standards for timeliness, proper business dress, your definition of sexual harassment and similar matters. Even if you think what you're saying is obvious, your employees may not see it the same way.

  • Establish the disciplinary process. Employees should know from the start how you handle discipline problems. Are their violations that bring immediate dismissal? If the discipline process is progressive, how will it escalate? Having a process and following it shows that you're being fair.

  • Follow procedure. Workplace discipline has to be consistent to be fair. If you give your best people multiple chances but don't do the same for other employees, it's harder to defend your decisions if things ever wind up in court. 

  • Be fair. If your employees routinely show up late and you don't think it's worth fussing about, that's fine. However, if you suddenly write up one employee for lack of punctuality, it's going to look like you were targeting them unfairly.

  • Stick to facts. Supervisors and subordinates don't always get along, but personal disputes shouldn't affect the disciplinary process. The manager should discuss what the employee has done wrong and focus on that, rather than personalities. 

  • Let employees speak. Part of not being a tyrant is listening to the employee's side of things. They may have a different version of events or a perspective you haven't considered. Sometimes the real problem is a poorly defined job assignment or that the employee has no control over their job. 

Why Documentation Matters

It's important to keep good records of everything discipline-related. This includes writing up the initial problems that triggered the disciplinary process and all the steps you take. Whatever format or method you use, write down the dates, the incidents and the outcomes, as well as any employee responses. If you talk to the employee, document those conversations too.

Keeping records shows everyone, from the employee to upper management, what the facts of the case are. It also shows that you've followed the formal procedure step by step, and can justify whatever punishments or requirements you placed on the employee.

Talking to Employees

When the time comes to talk to your employees about discipline problems, your attitude and manner can go a long way towards making the discussion productive.

  • Don't talk down to your staff. Communicate with your employee as an equal. Listen to what they have to say, and try to discuss the problem rather than lecture. You'll have to make the final decision about resolving the issue, but the more your employee participates, the better.

  • Don't lose your cool. If you yell at an employee, they'll focus more on that than your actual words. Staying calm and keeping your discussion to the facts is a more productive approach. It also helps keep your employee centered on the issues, rather than you.

  • Don't assume the employee gets it. Your employee may genuinely not realize that a joke he told was offensive, or why cutting team members off in a discussion is rude. Rather than just saying they broke the rules, explain why the rule exists, and why his actions are a problem.

  • Talk about what needs to be done. Make sure you and the employee are both on the same page when figuring out where you go from here.