It happens every day in businesses, big and small, from every sector. An employee fails to deliver on expectations or acts inappropriately. It’s probably not the first time. The manager escalates the issue to involve HR in a disciplinary action or process. Disciplinary measures are enacted… But is this really fixing your top HR issues?
The Vicious Cycle of Disciplinary Processes
Some of the toughest HR issues are only issues because frontline managers didn’t address the situations sooner.
Proactive, well-trained managers and supervisors have fewer issues and seldom have to resort to disciplinary processes. Instead, they:
- Set clear expectations for employees
- Are consistent in holding all employees accountable to those expectations
- Provide timely, constructive feedback when expectations are not met
- Demonstrate a genuine interest in helping employees succeed
- Coach for continual development
- Document employee performance and behaviors, positive and negative, routinely
- Recognize employee efforts, growth, successes, and contributions to the team
By contrast, issues snowball when managers take shortcuts, execute poorly, or are untrained in the above essentials.
When disciplinary processes are used, typically long after the issue should have first been addressed, it’s a vicious cycle… a chain of events in which the response to one difficulty creates a new problem that aggravates the original difficulty or underlying problem.
With disciplinary processes, the intention is to modify undesirable performance and behavior through the use of a corrective action process. Typically, disciplinary processes progress through these phases: verbal feedback, written warnings, paid or unpaid suspensions, loss of job status (demotion), and termination of employment.
At any one of these phases, the action taken can create new problems that aggravate the original problem. For example:
Verbal feedback, when not delivered well, can trigger unproductive, defensive responses. The feedback conversation itself can become a bigger problem than the original incident. This is especially true when clear, consistent expectations were not delivered prior to the feedback.
Written warnings seldom increase engagement and commitment. Instead, they cause employees to “quiet quit” and start looking for a new job. They may also result in employees mounting a full defense, creating their own documentation of grievances and justifications for their own actions.
Suspensions, when paid, are sometimes viewed as bonus vacation days. They reward bad behavior. Even unpaid leave can feel like a welcome break rather than a punitive action. This can be a punishment that has no teeth.
Demotions invite accusations of unfairness and favoritism. If someone is not qualified for the job or hasn’t demonstrated an ability to do the job, why are they in the job to begin with?
Terminations are risky when there is any gap in clarity, consistency, and effort to help the employee course correct. The blowback with other employees (who are often taxed by additional workload) can cause low morale… Low morale can lead to reduced performance and negativity….. and that can result in additional employees entering into the disciplinary process.
This is not to say that disciplinary processes are inherently flawed or should be scrapped altogether. Like anything, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use these progressive steps.
The vicious cycle occurs when frontline supervisors and managers are not proactively using development steps. Instead of investing long-term in employee development, they focus short-term and expect disciplinary measures to serve as bandaid solutions.
Fixing Your Top HR Issues: Long-Term Solutions vs. Short-Term Bandaids
You could prevent most of your biggest issues in HR simply by training managers and supervisors in the work of leading people. Left to their own devices, managers may do a fine job of managing the work. That’s not enough.
If you’re promoting rockstars within their functional areas but neglecting to teach them the skills for leading people, you’re fomenting problems.
Supervisors often become super-doers. They manage the work, even if it means doing it themselves. At the same time, they disenfranchise employees. You know this is happening if you experience:
- High turnover
- Reduced productivity
- Increased negativity
- Low engagement and high apathy
- Lack of personal accountability at the frontlines
- Increased absenteeism
- Employee complaints about the culture or management
- Work not getting done in a timely manner
- Increased expenses related to overtime, rework, and/or turnover
It’s not the manager’s fault. If you’ve never provided training, set expectations for people leadership, and have KPIs that are related solely to output, this is a systemic problem that HR should be addressing.
What’s missing is clarity about what a manager or supervisor role should encompass. Do your supervisors and managers know that their job is supposed to include:
- Setting expectations clearly? That includes explaining what to do, how to do it, how much to do, when to do it, and why it matters. These expectations must be clear and consistent.
- Giving regular performance feedback? The feedback should be delivered using a prescribed model. It should be given in live time, and it should be documented.
- Praising employees for a job well done? Standards are best reinforced by recognizing them when achieved.
- Providing opportunities for development? This includes effectively delegating, coaching, and motivating employees. Knowing employees and understanding their long-term career objectives is necessary for selecting appropriate development activities.
- Showing up as leaders? Employees want guidance. They need an example to follow. They want to trust and be trusted so they can take risks, voice their opinions, and grow in confidence and competence.
When management is clear about these responsibilities, trained to be effective in all of the above, and working daily to support employee development, your organization will proactively be preventing messy problems that require disciplinary actions. Your top HR issues will pop up less frequently and be easier to handle.
When management is not aware of these responsibilities or neglects them, discontent and people issues are inevitable.
A People-First Approach Fixes and Prevents Problems
People practices should be, first and foremost, about developing people. Compliance-based and policy-driven people practices tend to focus instead on discipline.
The operating premise behind disciplinary practices is that you’ll have to keep people in line. It begins with an assumption that employees will take advantage of the company or act in inappropriate ways.
Conversely, consider what happens when you start with an assumption that employees will rise to your realistic expectations and dig deep to deliver when they feel ennobled and a part of something bigger.
When employees feel an employer is investing in them, they reciprocate. They develop an emotional connection to organizations and managers who inspire them to be a part of the whole. That emotional connection causes them to apply additional discretionary effort to the work they do (the very definition of employee engagement!).
Putting people first doesn’t mean ignoring sound business principles. It means including people, in meaningful ways, to implement those business principles. It means enlisting them in the success of the business by acknowledging that success is ultimately determined by people and their commitment to that success.
When your time and resources are consumed by investigations, escalations, interventions, legal counsel on employment laws, and endless meetings about complaints, you may feel it’s impossible to shift to a people-first, development-focused approach.
The only way to extract yourself from this vicious cycle is to make a permanent shift. It starts with establishing people practices and training all members of the management team about those practices. It’s reinforced by monitoring management adoption of these practices and setting expectations for managers to lead and develop people.
People leadership and development activities should not depend on finding time. Don’t wait for a mass exodus of people to force your hand. Don’t let an employee complaint and legal embarrassment be the catalyst for finally making a change. And don’t get yourself in a costly business predicament first. Instead, make it happen.
The time it takes to transition may be quicker than you think. The pathway may, occasionally, be rough. Some employees, including supervisors, may opt out because they don’t want to do the hard work of giving others feedback or holding themselves and others accountable. They’d rather continue handing issues over to HR… But that’s unsustainable and bad for everyone involved.