The Art of Discipline
Discipline. A word no one wants to hear, and which—particularly in the labour relations context—is often misunderstood by both workers and management. The purpose of discipline is to modify behaviour. Unfortunately, it is often used to punish or get revenge.
I recently had a case where two employees, who were providing care for a vulnerable resident, were caught having their own conversation about private issues. The resident couldn’t participate in the conversation, and having such conversations while caring for residents isn’t acceptable. It is, however, easy to do without thinking.
These employees had clean records, but they each received a 20-day suspension just before Christmas for this one slip-up. Such an incident, particularly given their clean records, should only have led to a verbal warning.
Not only did these workers receive excessive discipline, but all the other employees at the home had to work short-staffed over the Christmas holidays.
The union then had to grieve the severity of the punishment. Meetings needed to be called, with the possibility of bringing in lawyers and third parties—all for an understandable oversight on the part of these workers. To add insult to injury, if the union wins the grievance and the employees’ wages are paid back, the employer will simply recoup those funds by cutting shifts, causing even more widespread stress and resentment.
Using discipline as punishment is always self defeating.
First, it upsets the person and often causes them to react negatively rather than addressing their mistake. In fact, it may turn a supportive employee into a sullen and resentful one.
Second, it can have unintended consequences for the bargaining unit, which spreads the resentment.
Finally, using discipline as punishment usually leads to excessive discipline, which leads to the union intervening to make the punishment fit the crime more appropriately.
Appropriate discipline is important and necessary. The better you do it, the better it is for everyone. It is best done in the context of a respectful employer/employee relationship.
So what is the appropriate discipline process?
1. Depending on the severity of the incident, a brief private conversation is often sufficient. Sometimes during that conversation, a supervisor learns that there were mitigating factors that help to explain the behaviour.
2. If the poor behaviour continues, a documented verbal warning may be appropriate, or later a written warning.
3. Following that, a brief suspension and then suspensions of increasing length and severity.
4. Only once the discipline procedures have failed do you dismiss a worker, unless of course they committed a very serious offence that requires dismissal right away.
In my experience, most situations are simply not as serious as they are made out to be and employers respond in an emotional rather than practical manner, which inevitably leads to grievances. The more often that you provide discipline at a lower level (such as through private conversations and verbal warnings), the less often that you will need to implement more drastic measures. The problem is that good lower-level discipline is not done often enough.
The key is for employers to know their employees, to have a good relationship with them, and have the wisdom to know which level of discipline to apply in each situation.
Discipline is a learned art which must be exercised with care and concern for the worker and the workplace, so that workers can grow, relationships can be maintained, and time and resources can be saved by avoiding grievances.