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The Whiteboard: Don't shirk discipline in the workplace

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When is disciplinary action not disciplinary action? The answer is simple. It is not disciplinary action when a company's management is not willing to enforce its policies.

I’ve written about company values several times in this column. I always caution managers not to publish value statements if they can’t model those values personally, and if they won’t demand that every employee model them as well. The same is true of the basic policies governing workplace behavior.

Most companies have policies describing expected behavior and consequences for misbehavior. The basics include policies on tardiness, attendance, following safety procedures, substance abuse and when it is appropriate to take breaks.

These policies usually describe a series of escalating consequences for misbehavior. The first time, a verbal warning is given. The second time, it’s a written warning. Then comes some kind of suspension and, if all else fails, termination.

That seems very logical and fair, and most companies are fine delivering the verbal and written warnings. However, when it comes to suspensions and terminations, many companies falter.

The argument is something like, “Well, Joe is a pretty good guy and he does a pretty good job. Yeah, he’s late several days a week, but we really need him right now. Let’s just give him another stern warning.” Or like this. “Mack is a great (pick one – CAD operator, welder, machinist, painter, etc.). Yes, he shouldn’t have come in with booze on his breath, but it’s been quite a while since the last time. And you know how hard it is to hire people today.”

Managers rationalize their way around taking action. You can’t rationalize your way to a great organization. Everyone else in the business knows what is going on with Joe and Mack. They see management turning a blind eye to behaviors that should be totally unacceptable.

Some coworkers are really self-motivated. They always continue doing the right things. Others see management’s inaction and take that as a license to join the party, coming in late, slacking off, taking extra breaks, pushing the envelope. Soon, you have a dysfunctional culture. Without basic discipline in place, sloppiness creeps into every aspect of the business.

Richard Randall
Richard Randall - ()

My prescription for solving the problem of employees whom management is afraid to discipline is simple. First, have a plan. Identify the most chronic offenders and document the problems. Hire replacements for them and vet each replacement through his/her probationary period. Or identify internal replacements and backfill for them. Then terminate the chronic offenders.

That will be a wakeup call for everyone else in the organization. It will send the message that management is not going to tolerate those behaviors anymore. It will have an immediate salutary effect on the whole organization.

In parallel with that process, I recommend a thorough examination of all workplace policies with an effort to make employees responsible for their behavior and consequences. For example, some companies keep a rolling record of tardiness and unexcused absences. If the employee exceeds a certain number in a year, that employee is fired. No warnings, no discussion, no hand-wringing.

Some companies shut off the time clock after a short grace period. Tardy employees with no excuse are not allowed to clock in until the top of the next hour. The consequence is instant, financial, fair and appropriate. No warnings, no letters, no arguments.

Finally, train all managers and supervisors to immediately call out and correct improper workplace behavior every time. Let them know that the company is serious and will back them up when disciplinary action is required.

Remember, you can’t rationalize your way to a great organization.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at

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