The naughty step

I’m guessing if you are a parent you have heard of the naughty step. The theory goes that you put your misbehaving child onto the bottom step of the stairs for a ‘time out’ when they break the rules. The child stays there, being put back repeatedly if necessary, for one minute for every year of their age. The child should be required to apologise at the end of the time out. I’ve never tried the naughty step, but I’m told that it works.

My only issue with the naughty step is when we use it at work. Only then, we call it the Disciplinary Procedure.

I’ve delivered a few training courses in my time, training line managers in how to handle discipline. I’ve stood at the front of a room and explained that the purpose of a disciplinary procedure is to ensure that inappropriate conduct is addressed, and, get this, encourage an improvement in the behaviour in the employee. Even ACAS churn out this beauty.

Really? You put people through a formal investigation. You send them letters, take minutes, call witnesses, allow accompaniment. You make a decision, issue a sanction, allow an appeal. And we think this will improve behaviour. Discipline is the organisational equivalent of stopping pocket money, confiscating a favoured toy.

What is actually does is store up resentment and like so much of workplace activity, perpetuate the parent / child relationship. Workplace design, hierarchy, processes. Command and control. Think about Call Centres; every moment regulated and timed, right down the toilet break (put your hand up please). Even the design of HR departments can add to the problem, operating helpdesks that tell line managers what to do, which usually means explaining a policy and promoting a procedural approach. Disciplinary Procedures are part of this.

The line manager acts as the Critical Parent. Scolding, telling. The Child then becomes sullen, unco-operative, angry. I have worked in organisations where so many things were subject to investigation and discipline, it was just an automatic response. A minor infraction? Straight up to HR to kick off the process. Receiving a white envelope from HR became a company joke, a badge of honour, meaningless.

Line managers complain to me that they have disciplined people but they still don’t change their behaviour. No shit, Sherlock. You treated someone like a child, and then they behaved like one. And you didn’t see that coming?

If the workplace naughty step Disciplinary Procedure worked, then there would be no such thing as a final written warning.

It is time to re-think managing discipline in the workplace, and HR needs to take the lead. Challenge line managers, strip back your policy, stop churning out the letters.

Adult to adult.

10 thoughts on “The naughty step

  1. Nice post. By way of another angle – I had a guy working for me who I felt was a slacker, and a couple of times when he said he was with clients – it turned out he wasn’t. I didn’t go looking for ‘evidence’, gaps in stories would just come up in conversation. Lying is difficult, particularly over time – people forget the tales they’ve told end trip themselves up. Anyway – when these stories didn’t match I would tell the guy and put it to him that if he wasn’t willing to be honest – then why should I trust him. I logged this stuff but kept it between him and me. Maybe I was wrong to do that, but that’s what I did.

    A little while later he got caught by the IT security people accessing inappropriate material online. I had to formally discipline the guy, suspend him pending further enquiries and send him home. It turned out that the timing of his internet activity repeatedly matched up with times he was supposed to be working so I told HR about previous shortcomings, and recommended that he be fired. In the end he got a final written warning from HR and was told he couldn’t apply for promotion for a year. And he got put back on my team. Grrr!

  2. Thanks for the comments all. I guess Doug’s example (inappropriate material on line) is one where the disciplinary policy is needed! This for me is when discipline is the right thing to do. It has a time and a place. I recently became aware of an organisation that disciplines people for very small mistakes. A supermarket worker who had accidently scanned something twice. No prior issues, but warned that any further similar issues might amount to dismissal. This, IMHO, is not the place for discipline, it was a time for an explanation of the impact, maybe re-training, a conversation. Save it for the serious stuff.

  3. I like it Gemma. There probably is a place for disciplinary procedures with the misconduct issues. The challenge is, as you say, getting managers to change their behaviour. Starting to look for positives and giving feedback – creating a standard employees can to live up to.

  4. Great post Gemma. Lines managers using disciplinary procedures to avoid having to do any actual managing …. who’d have thought it?

  5. Pingback: Best Blogs, 2 Aug 2013 | ChristopherinHR

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