Employee discipline should focus on coaching, not punishment

Posted September 13, 2016

By Michael Henckel, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

Many employers use a progressive discipline plan as a way to manage unacceptable employee behavior. While progressive discipline can be effective for sustaining a structured plan, discipline should not be carried out as a punishment. Rather, discipline should be used to correct behavior, respectfully.

Is punishment the best choice?

Employers often use a progressive discipline plan in an effort to avoid legal claims and to allow employees to correct their behavior. Progressive discipline plans generally follow these steps (or a closely related variation):

  1. Verbal warning
  2. Written warning
  3. Final written warning or suspension
  4. Termination

One drawback of steps like these is that they’re punitive, not instructive. A discipline plan that only threatens employees with a series of progressively harsher punishments might not bring out the best in employees. Coupled with a corrective action plan, however, discipline that involves coaching can yield more positive outcomes.

Communicate a corrective action plan

When faced with a disciplinary action, most employees want to improve. Without a clear plan, however, employees may not know what or how to change their behavior.

Explaining to employees why their behavior is unacceptable might seem unnecessary. Many employees, however, simply may not understand the company’s policies or expectations, or don’t understand how their action affects others. Giving examples of what employees should be doing (rather than only listing what they should not be doing) may help them by providing a goal to work toward.

Communicating why an adjustment is needed, and offering corrective guidance to create an improvement plan with the employee, can change the focus from an employer-directed discipline to employee-empowered improvement.

Constructively coach

Once a corrective action plan is in place, the supervisor should periodically check in with the employee. These meetings are meant to ensure both the manager and the employee are on the same page and to avoid misunderstandings.

During these sessions, the supervisor should point out improvements the employee has made (which highlights the positive and offers reinforcement), and offer further coaching on behaviors that still need improvement.

Giving and receiving employee discipline is never pleasant. Changing the approach, however, from punishment to constructive discipline through coaching can strengthen the skills of the management team and show employees that the company is invested in their growth and success.

About the author:

Michael Henckel

Michael Henckel is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, a nationally recognized compliance resource company that offers products and services to address the range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. Henckel specializes in topics such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, employee classification, and compensation. He is the author of J. J. Keller’s FSLA Essentials guidance manual. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com/hr.