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Sylvester Kay-Adade: How To Discipline an Erring Employee

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Just as employees whom perform their duties appropriately should be encouraged by rewarding them with praise, employees who perform negative actions should be discouraged by rewarding them with a penalty/punishment.

It is, however, important to note that the purpose of discipline is for correction and learning. Being a supervisor, like a coordinator, manager, or team lead, is not a license to be a bully. Explaining faults in a respectful manner helps employees understand the problem and reduces the likelihood of a repeated offence. This is the reason why it is necessary to educate subordinates, especially new employees/members of your group/team, on all company policies inside and outside of the workplace; emphasis on the importance of total compliance and the consequences of noncompliance.

For example, harassment is a major concern in companies with a diverse workforce. It ranges from bullying to sexual harassment – sexual harassment being the most prevalent. Female subordinates are usually the victims of sexual harassment, not just from their peers, but from figures in authority and that’s unfortunate. Unreciprocated advances, bothersome behaviour, and failed/forceful romance are the most common types of sexual harassment.

In Nigeria, I’ve noticed that a lot of young women do not even realise that being hit on, “accidentally” fondled, or groped by a colleague at work is unacceptable. What is even more alarming is that a lot of companies, via complacent supervisors, treat sexual harassment complaints as non-issues. This is too bad, as I don’t know if this attitude stems from the archaic culture of treating women as second class citizens with no rights, or just plain insensitivity. I try to educate employers that this should be a huge concern.
It is important for productivity that female workers feel safe. As a supervisor, it is your responsibility to be sensitive enough to handle such issues delicately, discretely, swiftly, and by the book. If male employees are not reprimanded for sexual harrassment, this unprofessional behavior will continue, and possibly escalate into violent advances.

That being said, there should be a scale to the severity of punishments in relation to the frequency and gravity of the offences. For minor offences, such as absenteeism/lateness, missed deadlines, insubordination, misuse of office equipment, and abuse of privileges, it is advisable to apply progressive discipline – a process of building up to cause. It starts with a verbal warning, and with the repeat of an offence, it escalates to a written warning, suspension (with/without pay), and finally, termination. For more severe offences such as harassment, inappropriate/crude behaviour, and violence, the company must have policies. Policies usually highlight the process of handling such situations. However, in my experience, there are two successful forms of employee discipline:

Progressive
This is the most widely used form of employee discipline. It is a gradual process of discipline that escalates as the faults increase or graduate. For minor offenses, it progresses from verbal warning – written warning – suspension (with/without pay) – termination. For more serious offenses, it may go from written warning – suspension (without pay) – termination. It is successful because it motivates subordinates in becoming effective employees of their organizations. The only problem with the progressive discipline model is that it may not actually correct the wrong. It works like negative reinforcement – the action is only discontinued in order to avoid punishment.

Positive
This is a new, lenient trend in organisations. It progresses from verbal warning – written warning – suspension (with pay). It aims to impact learning rather than to punish. It is successful because it assists employees become more effective by discouraging bad behavior, as opposed to punishment. The only problem with the positive discipline model is its controversial nature – its leniency; penalised subordinates still get paid, even though they’re on suspension.

Please note that every form of warning must be documented, and a copy put into the subordinates’ files. This is particularly useful during performance evaluations. Most of the Nigerian employers I’ve worked with are of the opinion that leniency doesnt work here. They believe only the iron hand approach of the progressive discipline model would encourage the desired behaviour.

Anyway, since prevention is better than cure, it is advisable to transfer dating/married/estranged couples to different departments to avoid conflict; provide support and time for improvement for underperforming employees; and organize mandatory seminars, departmental workshops and leisure outings. This will help promote harmony and mutual respect. When all else fails, use discernment in applying warnings, suspensions and terminations (with built cause). Supervisors have to decide what will work best for the benefit of their teams/subordinates and company.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime 

Sylvester is a serial entrepreneur and business consultant specialized in small and medium enterprises (SMEs). He runs Herança Financial, an SME management firm, originally based in Canada. He is passionate about small business, and has a blog where he gives advice and shares his experiences in business and life.

6 Comments

  1. beauty

    November 9, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    How do you discipline a fellow employee who errs you by never refraining from conscientious meddling in your affairs?

    • The real D

      November 9, 2015 at 5:49 pm

      @ beauty, you stop putting your business out there so no one meddles in said business. People can only meddle in things they know about. I have a “need to know ” policy in both my personal and business life. That is, I ask myself ,does this individual need to know this,? If the answer is no, then they ain’t hearing it from me. Even if it is a colleague at work, as long as their work is not related to the project then they don’t need to know. That was a lesson I learned from a company I worked for and I have since applied to my personal life and it works.

  2. Prime Babe

    November 9, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    I agree totally with the idea that leniency doesn’t work here. I will give an example. A driver (Driver A) took home the company’s vehicle home (because according to him, it was late) and the vehicle was vandalised overnight. Said vehicle was insured and in the process of accessing the amount to be paid by insurance and giving out the required “punishment”, another driver (Driver B) who imagined that we had let the matter go, took out another of the company’s vehicle to use for commercial purposes and unfortunately had an accident. Of course, he imagined that Driver A was not going to be punished and yes, he was fired after he paid the damages to the car. Driver A was punished following plenty plenty investigation but it was not as severe as that meted out to Driver B because 1) he was penitent and remorseful 2) He was willing to pay for repairs to the vehicle while Driver B didnt even see anything wrong in what he had done until he was locked up by the police.

  3. The real D

    November 9, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    I am no HR expert but both examples listed appear to progress. Verbal warning-written warning – suspension. So trying to understand the “progressive” or lack thereof.
    As for positive reinforcement, I get what that means, the only difference I see with the 2 methods listed is one is definitely paid suspension while the other may or may not be paid.

    My point is I do not see any difference with the listed 2 ways. One is not more or less progressive than the other and one is not less or more positive than the other. Like I said I am no HR expert so this might be some HR jargon I am not familiar with but based on my experience with different companies. You can be “progressively” punished or instantaneously punished, I.e instant termination (IP drama or sexual harassment). I have realized that when it comes to misconduct in the place of work, no company I have worked for is there to play nanny mcphee, I.e let me teach you how to act as a responsible adult, that one is for your mama and papa. You mess up, you pay the price. Positive reinforcement has no place when it comes to getting in trouble with HR.

  4. jelly

    November 9, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    This post is timely for me.
    A new employee of mine burst into tears today in the office after missing most of the questions from a verbal work assessment.
    This Totally got me confused since the outcome of the assessment wasn’t going to jeopardize her employment.

    Same staff had earlier refused to submit referee forms which is already over due for submission.

    Biko how do you discipline a ‘cry-ready’ jellyfish?

  5. Tosin

    November 13, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    it depends on the people you’re mentoring/nurturing and what motivates them. if someone tried to do any of this baby carrot/stick progressive/regressive abunan on me, inside i would just be laughing, and i’d probably quit and leave them with their jokes.
    in my view, it’s important to understand, really love, really pay attention to, and really understand your pipu first, before you punish/discipline yourself.

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