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Supervisee Discipline: The Five Classic Questions
A half-century ago, Arbitrator Carroll Daugherty, in rendering his decision in the Grief Bros. Cooperage arbitration case, provided a series of tests to determine "whether employer had just and proper cause for disciplining an employee." As Daugherty explained it, "a no answer to any one or more of the following questions normally signifies that just and proper cause did not exist." These tests can be boiled down to five questions that every supervisor should ask himself before proceeding with a disciplinary discussion.
The five questions are these:
1. Did the employee clearly understand the rule or policy that was violated?
2. Did the employee know in advance that such conduct would be subject to disciplinary action?
3. Was the rule violated reasonably related to the safe, efficient, and orderly operation of the business?
4. Is there substantial evidence that the employee actually did violate the rule?
5. Is the action planned reasonably related to the seriousness of the offense, the employee's record with the organization, and to action taken with other employees who have committed a similar offense?
Reviewing these questions and getting affirmative answers to each one assures you that you are on solid ground in taking the action you have planned. Even more important, if any disciplinary action or discharge is ever challenged, the organization's ability to demonstrate that all supervisors consider Daugherty's tests before taking action greatly increases the defensibility of whatever action was taken.
Creating the Setting
Too often the decisions about when the meeting for the Performance Improvement Discussion will be held, who will be present, the location of the meeting, where participants will sit, the time allotted to it, and other critical matters are made by default. The more that these issues are resolved consciously, the greater the likelihood of overall success.
Where Should the Meeting Be Held?
While the logical place is in the supervisor's office, there are alternatives to consider. If privacy is a concern, consider using a conference room. If the matter is not yet serious enough to invoke one of the formal Discipline Without Punishment steps, a session at an isolated table in the cafeteria might be effective. If the matter is a very serious disciplinary transaction, the supervisor may ask his or her boss if the meeting can be scheduled in the boss's office, with the senior supervisor present as a witness to increase the perceived seriousness of the issue.
When Should the Meeting Be Held?
The session should follow the discovery of the problem as closely as possible, but sufficient time must be allowed for the supervisor to investigate the facts and prepare for the meeting. Too often, supervisors begin the discussion with an employee about a problem immediately upon uncovering a serious lapse in acceptable performance. By rushing pell-mell into a discussion, the supervisor loses effectiveness in two ways. First, since he took no time to prepare, he has not thought through the issues of desired and actual performance, the effects and the logical consequences, and thus will be less capable of avoiding distractions and maintaining a professional approach. Worse, since the supervisor took no time to prepare, the employee may believe that this is merely a spur-of-the-moment reaction on the supervisor's part and not a matter of serious concern.
Another scheduling issue involves getting all the necessary approvals before beginning the discussion. In almost every organization a supervisor must get higher management approval before proceeding with one of the more serious steps of the Discipline Without Punishment procedure. No organization I have ever worked with allows a supervisor to place an employee on Decision Making Leave or terminate the individual without at least a review by the Human Resources function and a member of the senior management team. These reviews frequently take time, and as the time between the commission of the act and the discussion of the issue expands, the impact of the discussion on the employee may decrease.
Effective implementation of the complete Discipline Without Punishment procedure always simplifies the approval process, but time obstacles created by out-of-town trips, vacations of key approvers, and other schedule dilemmas may still interfere with discussing the matter with all deliberate speed. When time delays occur, it may be wise to say to the employee, "This situation is one that concerns me a great deal and we will need to talk about it seriously. I will get back to you as soon as I can and set a time for a meeting to discuss it. In the meantime, it is important that you immediately follow all job procedures."
-Grote, Dick, Discipline Without Punishment, AMACOM: New York, 2006
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
Personal Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information about five questions to consider before you begin the disciplinary process. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
What are the five classic questions of supervisee discipline? To select and enter your answer go to .