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Are discipline and punishment mutually exclusive? How can discipline be implemented with empathy and still achieve the organizational objective of changing employee behavior or attitude?

According to the University of British Columbia; Discipline in the workplace is the means by which supervisory personnel correct behavioural deficiencies and ensure adherence to established company rules. The purpose of discipline is correct behaviour. It is not designed to punish or embarrass an employee.

Often, a positive approach may solve the problem without having to discipline. However, if unacceptable behaviour is a persistent problem or if the employee is involved in a misconduct that cannot be tolerated, management may use discipline to correct the behaviour.

Employers should refrain from “disciplining” employees by such methods as altering work schedules, assigning an employee to do unpleasant work, demotion, or denying vacation requests.

The question is; has traditional punishment styles really changed employees or hardened employees and led to employee turnover?

According to Harvey, successful organizations no longer look at “discipline” as something that a manager does to a poor performer when he or she misbehaves. Instead, these companies now approach discipline as something that must be created. They have abandoned traditional punitive measures and in their place, have developed systems that require acceptance of personal responsibility, individual decision making and true self-discipline. They have made the transition from the concept of “doing discipline” to the more constructive perspective of “being disciplined”.

Discipline with punishment

The examples below reflect employee reactions to discipline with punishment

  • In a plant of a major food-processing company, disciplinary problems became so severe that in a space of nine months, managers fired 58 of the 210 employees. Supervisors eagerly wrote up infractions with the intent of running off “troublemakers.” The atmosphere turned poisonous; obscene messages began appearing in the plant’s products.
  • A glass factory’s system made final action an unpaid suspension, the length to be determined by the facts of the case and the employee’s record. An employee who had previously been suspended for one day would be suspended for three days for repeating the offense; a five-day suspension might be ten the next time. A frustrated personnel manager complained of one individual who was now on his fifth suspension—this time for one month—and admitted that when he returned he would be no better than when he left. “What should we do next?” he asked. “Suspend him for a year?” In the meantime, production was disrupted as less-skilled employees had to fill in. Overtime increased, and other employees kidded the supervisor about how they too would like a month’s “vacation.”

These examples illustrate the dilemma of discipline. Attempts to establish a disciplined environment by using a traditional approach cannot produce employees who are committed to the goals of the company and the policies and rules by which it operates.

How Do You Discipline Without Punishment?

Pennzoil, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Tampa Electric, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit System – have discovered little value comes out of the common belief that discipline and punishment go hand in hand. Alan Bryant of General Electric says ‘the problem is, we don’t ask enough. We only ask the person to accept his warning or serve out his time. We rarely talk about individual responsibility or ask for a genuine commitment for the future.

Tampa Electric Company as Case Study

It was a particularly nasty incident involving a foreman that triggered Tampa Electric Company’s decision to switch to a nonpunitive approach to discipline. The labor relations manager recalled the 1977 confrontation between the foreman and a lineman this way: “The lineman’s confrontational behavior caused the working foreman to grab the lineman by his shirt collar and shake him severely. This is unacceptable behavior for a working foreman, and he was suspended for 13 days. I had no choice under the existing policy but to support that suspension, but I never felt good about it. All I did was penalize an employee and his family; I did not change his behavior in any way. I believe he would have done the same thing again. I forced compliance, but he will still believe the company was wrong.”

His prediction was accurate. Five months later another disciplinary situation arose with the same foreman. The previous suspension had proved ineffective in improving behavior.

The labor relations manager’s frustration with the company’s punitive approach resulted in a search for an alternative. The organization wanted a system that provided consistency, fairness, and lasting corrective measures without resorting to punishment. In September 1979, the production operations and maintenance groups replaced the old approach with a nonpunitive system for a one-year trial period. By January 1981, the new system was in effect companywide. The pilot project, which covered 1,000 employees, grew to include nearly 3,000.

After the program had been in place in production operations and maintenance for about a year, Tampa Electric surveyed the 100 managers and supervisors in the affected departments. All but 2 not only agreed that the program should be continued but also recommended its expansion. “When you get 98 out of 100 managers agreeing on anything,” one senior executive commented, “you know you’ve got something that’s very successful.” Shortly thereafter, Tampa Electric expanded its nonpunitive approach to all operating, service, and administrative departments.

Since the program was adopted companywide in January 1981, Tampa Electric reports only favorable results: more effective and accepted disciplinary measures, fewer successful unemployment compensation claims after employees have been terminated, less absenteeism, and fewer arbitrations. In fact, in 1982, no union grievance proceeded to arbitration.

The decline in absenteeism alone resulted in sizable financial savings for the company. Sick time usage in maintenance and production operations dropped from an average of 66.7 hours in 1977 to 36.6 hours in 1983. In one operating department, the average use of sick time per employee dropped from 58.8 hours to 19.5 hours per year in five years. Based on a 1983 average wage rate of $11.78 per hour, this reduction in sick time use saved the company $439,404, or 1.38% of the 1983 payroll—the equivalent of having 18 additional people on the job.

Tampa Electric’s experience with its nonpunitive system was best captured by the words of a long-term supervisor who expressed relief over the elimination of the unpaid suspension. “I’ve never yet seen a guy come back from an unpaid suspension,” he said, “feeling better about his boss, his job, the company, or himself.”

Why are Organizations Still Punishing Employees?

According to Campbell, Fleming and Grote; Despite the introduction of John Huberman’s “discipline without punishment” approach in 1964, organizations in the United States are still struggling with implementation. Without trying to be sarcastic, I guess it might take my country Nigeria another hundred years to adapt. Five reasons advanced for why it has taken so long for the new system to gain acceptance are:

  1. No perceived need:Throughout the 1960s and much of the 1970s, existing approaches to discipline were perceived as adequate, if imperfect. In the industrial sector of the economy, the traditional disciplinary series of warnings and suspensions was comfortable and familiar; managers didn’t expect to bring about behavioral change and commitment to the organization’s goals. In the professional and technical sector, organizations tended to discount the need for a formal discipline system. Formal disciplinary action was somehow seen as inappropriate for this more sophisticated, better educated portion of the work force; problems were as likely to be avoided as confronted.

Today, the old standard is not good enough. Pressures for quality and productivity demand a work force committed to meeting organizational goals and requirements. Companies are implementing non-punitive discipline systems as a strategy to build commitment and productivity.

  1. Understanding “corporate culture”:Until recently, few companies recognized or cared whether they had a corporate culture that influenced the collective behavior of its members. Discipline was not perceived as a reflection of culture—represented, for example, in the idea of a well-disciplined organization. Rather, discipline was merely something “done to someone” in response to misbehavior. With the new interest in a company defining its corporate culture, however, has come recognition of the way discipline defines the relationship between managers and workers.
  2. Lack of an effective implementation process:Huberman’s 1964 article merely suggested replacing a series of punitive steps with a series of non-punitive steps. But simply renaming the steps has little impact on the day-to-day behavior of supervisors confronted with employee misbehavior. For an organization to change its approach to discipline, it has to review and reevaluate its entire approach to performance management. With more experience, managers have found methods to use in moving an organization from the old style to the new one.
  3. Changing work force values:At the time Huberman introduced his approach, the “baby boomers”—the huge population born between 1946 and the mid-1960s—had not yet entered the work force. The traditional values of hard work, diligence, obedience to authority, and self-discipline still prevailed. Today, with approximately 48%of the work force consisting of people born between 1946 and 1964, managers have to deal with employees who grew up in an era that spurned discipline for permissiveness, rejected authority figures, and insisted on immediate gratification and participation in decision making. When managers today complain that the “new breed” is different, they’re right.

Moreover, baby boomers not only make up the great majority of young employees in an organization, but also “senior boomers,” in their middle and late thirties, are now assuming positions of authority where they are required to set disciplinary standards. In their new tasks, many continue the unconventional attitudes and approaches they brought with them to the organization.

  1. Changing perceptions:In the 60’s discipline was perceived as a distasteful task best left to line supervisors and the labor relations department. Discipline did not deserve senior management’s attention.

Because of the tremendous increases in wrongful termination suits and challenges to disciplinary action by outside third parties, discipline has assumed a more significant place on the corporate agenda. Senior managers are recognizing that the traditional approach to discipline is out of alignment, both with other human resource systems and, more important, with most of our beliefs about the worth of the individual and the best ways to manage human resources.

These five factors have contributed to the increasing interest in and introduction of non-punitive discipline systems in a variety of organizations. As a result, the purpose of the disciplinary transaction has changed from a punishment meted out in response to a violation to a process that requires individuals to accept responsibility for their own behavior, performance, and continued participation in the enterprise.

Discipline and punishment are therefore not mutually exclusive. However, punishment does not have to be punitive to achieve discipline. Organizations will get better results and increased productivity with disciplined employees as against trying to change behavior through punitive measures. Developing discipline employees should be a culture as against disciplinary actions which are circumstance based.


Harvey, E.L., Discipline Vs. Punishment.



Discipline in the Workplace

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