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5 Errors to Avoid: Employee Discipline

Two boys practicing karate in front of a children's martial arts class

Greater focus, improved self-control, and increased self-discipline are only a few of the lasting benefits that a practitioner or trainee realizes from their study of any martial art.

As a business owner, your challenge is to translate the discipline you impart in your teaching to your employees to ensure the smooth operation of your business. How you impart these lessons to your employees may go far in determining the success of your business.

This article identifies some common communication errors and also provides suggestions on how to improve communications with your employees and impart the same lessons that you are providing to your students.


Error #1: Discipline as Punishment

Discipline pertains to improving employee performance by assisting the employee (at least at first) to learn so they can perform more effectively. One prevalent error is treating discipline as punishment. The threat of additional sanctions will not correct or eliminate unwanted behavior. Instead, it usually has the opposite effect.

Negative sanctions generally succeed only in limited instances where certain factors are present. Thus, just as your students learn discipline, so too should employee discipline be viewed as an opportunity for the employee to learn what needs to be done to bring their behavior up to the standards you demand. Discipline must have teeth, even in a learning sense. But it can’t only be teeth.

Error #2: Discipline as An I vs. You Confrontation

While martial arts may, in some circumstances, involve confrontation, employee discipline should not. Discipline should not be viewed as something done to an employee, but rather as something done with an employee. Effective discipline requires you and your employee work together to solve a problem. The result of this combined effort is an employee who feels respected, who is involved in the process, and who feels more a part of the team. Remember, discipline needs to be a team process.

Error #3: Too Late

While you are certainly not seeking out employee problems, there is a fine line between looking for trouble and being too slow to recognize or to respond to an emerging issue. Delay dealing with a problem and the unwanted behavior will continue or escalate, making it that much harder for you to deal with it in the future. It is critical that you promptly note inappropriate behavior and communicate that fact with the employee as soon as possible. This communication does not have to be lengthy, particularly if the event is minor, but putting it off until tomorrow never resolves the problem.

Error #4: A Non-Progressive Approach

Progressive discipline starts with the least possible use of power and disciplinary action. Over time, it involves stronger actions if the situation continues. Delay disciplinary action, as related in #3 above, and the situation may become so severe that only the harshest sanctions are available. Applying harsh initial discipline will usually not resolve the problem with the employee and may result in a backlash by other employees. Start with the least forceful action as early as possible, unless the offense warrants the severe action.

Error #5: Missing Root Causes

It is your business, and it is understandable that you may want to lay down the law to a problem employee. In some cases, a problem employee may require this kind of approach. However, in many situations, negative or even positive discipline may have little effect on behavior simply because it does not address the root causes of the problem. It leaves the employee on their own to figure out a solution.

There are many reasons that an employee’s behavior may be problematic (some of which may actually be due to the fact that the employee is a problem). Without knowing the root causes underlying a performance problem, it will be difficult to work with an employee to improve their behavior and performance.

I am not advocating one approach over another, nor am I advocating in favor of any particular approach. However, from both a legal and a practical standpoint, it makes no sense to take actions that are doomed to fail. Therefore, when you meet with your employees to discuss or correct behavior issues, remember that in a successful meeting you should:

1) Listen and have empathy with the employee’s situation.
2) Refocus the employee to the original problem, and ask them to come up with a solution.
3) Offer assistance, including setting up another meeting to discuss the employee’s progress.


About the author: Andrew S. Kasmen, Esq. is General Counsel and HR Director for Member Solutions.

Disclaimer: Member Solutions is not an attorney and does not provide legal advice. Further, the information provided in this article is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. It is being offered as a general information service to Member Solutions’ clients. The laws of your jurisdiction may differ. You should consult an attorney for specific advice regarding your particular situation.