Disciplining Employees Doesn’t Work (Shock)

Apparently, since the ban on term time holidays, there has been a sharp increase in the number of parents being fined for taking their children out of school. According to the government, fewer children are now missing school. I’m not actually sure the data that I have seen is showing that. It is showing lots of fines, which tells me parents are still happy to take their children out of school, only now they are paying for it.

I’d like to see the long term trend for this. Because if the research is correct, the government might not get the impact that they had hoped for. If they’d done their research, or even just read Freakonomics, they would know what happened when Israeli day care nurseries implemented charges for late pick-ups. The intention was to discourage parents from arriving late by introducing a small fine. What actually happened was late collections increased. Significantly. Why? It was now a simple bargain. A transaction. Before, it was about goodwill, not wanting to be the one who kept the teacher late, not wanting your child to be the last one waiting. Now there was a formal, monetary consequence, but one that the parents could obviously live with.

The moral of the story is this: sometimes you end up with unintended consequences. You might just get the exact opposite of what you set out for.

Take discipline at work. If you seek out a definition of its purpose, it will say something about correcting behaviour. Ensuring adherence to rules. Providing frameworks for dealing with people consistently and fairly.

Sanctions and incentives are supposed to influence behaviour. Drive it in one direction or another. It’s the old carrot and stick routine. And discipline is a big, blunt stick.

One of my early HR roles was almost entirely employee relations focused. Investigations, disciplinaries, grievances. That was all I did. Every single day, I would go onto the shop floor, wearing my trusty High Visibility vest, taking with me a stack of white envelopes, each one containing a summons to an investigation meeting or disciplinary hearing. We investigated everything. Disciplined for much. The managers would hand out the envelopes to the lucky recipients. The disciplinary process was designed to change their behaviour. And it did. It made them laugh at the disciplinary procedure. It turned it into first a joke, then a perverse badge of honour. Here comes HR, who has been a naughty boy today?

Unintended consequences. When it came to the nursery pick up, parents tried to be on time for many reasons. When the fine was introduced, it instead became a bargain, a financial transaction. One that could be accommodated. I can be late and pay a small fine. Or for the employees at my former company, I can breach discipline and get a white envelope, attend a meeting or two, and finally a warning that doesn’t actually mean very much at all.

Does the trusty disciplinary policy improve behaviour? Ensure adherence to rules?

Maybe. A little bit. But it does, then why?

The power of the disciplinary procedure rests within one ultimate sanction: dismissal. Only here’s the thing. Organisations do loads of them. And most of the time they don’t result in anything close to that. What they really result in is a letter than remains on your file for three months, six months, nine. Telling you not to do it again, or else…..

We might take further action, up to and including dismissal, in accordance with our Disciplinary Policy.

People behave well for a whole range of reasons. Some of it is tied up with their personality. Some of it is because of peer pressure, fear of consequences, moral imperitives, social incentives. Consider why more people don’t drink and drive. Is it because it is now considered morally unacceptable in our society, or is it because getting caught means certainly losing your licence?

People also behave badly at work for all sorts of reasons. And we need a better way of dealing with it. Because the unintended consequences of disciplinary procedures are negative impacts upon relationships, culture, behaviour. If the disciplinary process worked, you would only every discipline someone once. There would be no repeat behaviour. You would never see the same employee around that meeting table again, never go past the first written warning. But most HR folk will tell you, that isn’t our reality.

For all my criticisms, the truth is we are pretty much stuck with the legal framework. Legislation, ACAS codes, case law. Even if we accept that the traditional model of discipline doesn’t work, it is firmly embedded within the system. And the system requires us to have a policy, to follow it, to tick all of the procedural boxes. And there are consequences for failing to do so. It’s called the Employment Tribunal.

Our options for change are limited. The best thing that we can do in HR is skill our managers to have good, timely conversations instead, about performance, attitude, behaviour. Save your disciplinary process for when it really needed, for the most serious of issues. The best way to improve our approach to the disciplinary process, is use it less.

2 thoughts on “Disciplining Employees Doesn’t Work (Shock)

  1. I’m enjoying The Why Axis by @UriGneezy who did lots of the original field research that Freakonomics and similar are based on (including the nursery experiment). Heartily recommend it to anyone interested in incentives genuinely work.

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