Penalty time

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Nobody, save perhaps the most sadistic managers, ever wants to carry out disciplinary action. But everybody acknowledges the need for it to be done. Without repercussions, inappropriate or loss-leading behaviours get repeated, nothing is learned and the organization is doomed to a downward cycle of side effects.

The onus usually falls upon HR - for valid reasons. HR works with and for the people of the organization. It is only fitting that this department is in charge of enforcing the company's disciplinary policies. Reasonable or not, it is still an area that HR professionals list as the most burdensome and unpleasant of their responsibilities.

This may be why the topic of employee discipline is often overlooked by employers, particularly in organizations that pride themselves on high levels of trust and engagement. "We're like a family," says many a corporate staff handbook. But even the most positive and empowering of employers need to have ground rules in place. And this mentality - while appropriate for the purposes of employer-employee bonding - should not hide the critical need to enforce those codes of conduct.

When it comes to the more typical infractions - repeated lateness, or over indulging in internet usage - the most common excuse is one of ignorance. "I didn't know it was against the rules," can be a common refrain. 

Using social networking sites during office hours is a good example. Employees who peruse their Facebook or Twitter accounts at their work stations probably don't consider it an offense and indeed - in many organizations it wouldn't be. It can be considered a victimless offence with an impact on personal productivity but no wider implications for the organization.

One Brisbane office worker says she was genuinely surprised to be sent a warning letter for repeated use of personal email at her workstation. "I figured if they didn't want us to use those sites, they would block them," she said of management. "Nobody explicitly told me it was against the rules, and it wasn't like I was hurting anybody."

Whatever the company's rationale may be for forbidding certain activities, they should communicate the policies clearly.

Experts agree it's not enough to simply print the rules in a handbook or on a staff intranet and assume employees will read and take note. Instead, rules must be thoroughly and regularly explained.

Gerard Sankar, director of Gerard & Associates, believes face-to-face meetings are important. He notices that he's in the minority with this preference, especially in a Gen-Y dominated workforce. "Younger HR people are more informal about informing staff. They send out the information over email," he says.

He is more comfortable with meeting staff members personally. In a large organization, staff can be notified of policy changes in batches. When HR conveys the information personally, few staff members can say they weren't aware of the policy changes. Emails can easily be overlooked, especially since most employees' inboxes are crammed with messages from a wide range of stakeholders. New messages are much more frequent than staff meetings, and therefore make less impact. If the HR department calls for a meeting to discuss policy changes, it is signifying that the changes are important enough to warrant such an occasion.

Establishing consequences

While knowledge of the policies will deter some employees, many will continue breaking rules until repercussions are felt. Therefore, HR should make it a priority to make employees aware of consequences. This can be as simple as discussing possible reactions with employees at the time when rules are being established. However, there are a few guidelines in this area as well.

To many employees, as well as HR professionals, 'consequences' and 'punishments' are practically synonymous. If HR doesn't distinguish between the two, employees tempted to break rules are likely do so, but simply with greater care to avoid being caught. It should be clear that 'punishments' are not the only result of breaking rules. The more significant 'consequence' is the infraction's impact on the company and the other employees.

Consistency is the name of the game - staff of all levels should be disciplined equally. However, an exception should be made when teaching staff about the implications of their actions. For higher level staff, business implications are more relevant, whereas lower level staff might relate better to the financial costs of their actions.

Some methods of discipline are simply out of the question and should not be used in any case, with any member of staff. Openly humiliating employees and punishing them without explaining the reasons are not effective. However, if a person is admonished, it is best to have a neutral person also present. Sankar says there are fewer chances of misunderstanding if there are official witnesses to disciplinary actions.

When HR has to penalize employees, there is also a question of severity. A line must be drawn between minor and major misconduct, so employees know there are increasing degrees of repercussions. Employees should also be aware that repetition of small infractions will naturally warrant more serious punishment.

HR must use its discretion in all disciplinary cases. "You don't want a situation where you're handing out warning letters like fortune cookies," says Sankar. Exceptions must be thoroughly defined to avoid miscommunication. Using lateness as an example, Sankar says there are no excuses. But there are 'exceptions', such as an accident or a family emergency.

HR functions

Ask any HR professional why they chose their profession and you'll invariably hear about the enjoyment of working with people. Many will go further and describe the sense of achievement they get playing a part in identifying and nurturing talents.

Few HR professionals, if any, will say that the satisfaction in their career lies in meting out punishments. For this reason, knee-jerk reactions can occur in HR departments when disciplinary cases arise. These are especially likely when HR doesn't prepare well-articulated handbooks.

HR professionals who already have too much on their plates might be tempted to sweep small infractions under the rug. Not only is this unethical, it is also detrimental to the organization in the long run. Employee morale suffers when staff who play by the rules see others getting away with breaking them.

There is also no need for HR to feel overwhelmed, as long as they can engage section heads to assist them in disciplinary enforcement. Sankar says HR should play a supervisory role here, rather than simply delegating the disciplinary process to other parties.

The role of HR makes a profound impact on employee discipline, particularly if HR knows its place in the process. Sankar says HR departments which function as rubber stamps are not productive. If HR wants to add value to its organization, it needs to be actively involved in both the good and the less pleasant sides of the function.

And if not? Well, that could be grounds for a warning letter.

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