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Disciplining Employees Never Actually Works

The real consequences to your shitty behavior are far more permanent than a slap on the wrist

Several months ago, I stumbled upon a Reddit thread that chronicles the intense — and downright illegal — disciplinary actions implemented by an unspecified California retail store [sic]:

“My girlfriend works at a retail store in California. They’re supposed to ask customers if they want to buy a particular item, and there’s a punishment board for not doing so. The employee is allowed to choose their punishment from this punishment board.

“The punishments are either very hard (and often demeaning) work or obviously illegal punishments. The hard work is stuff like cleaning toilets or moving heavy objects. Other punishments include doing pushups, coworkers being allowed to hit you with a stick, drinking soap, eating dog food and sucking on undesirable objects that aren’t meant for human consumption.”


Needless to say, this is an extreme (and once again, illegal) example of disciplinary action — numerous commenters even recommend reporting this business and their inhumane practices to the Department of Labor, while others mention that these punishments are almost certainly anything but motivational. “You better work hard, or you get to guzzle soap and be beaten with a stick — that wouldn’t motivate me; it would demoralize me,” commenter Driftwould92 writes [sic].

Say it loud and clear, dude.

Still, this situation poses two important questions: What should employee discipline involve, and is punishing employees for their mistakes any more effective than rewarding them for their success?

“It’s important to distinguish between issues that can lead to disciplinary action — excessive absence or lateness, inappropriate behavior, violating other workplace rules — and issues that are performance-related,” explains Steve Boese, HR Technology Conference co-chair and co-host of the HR Happy Hour Show and podcast. “For employees that violate workplace or company policies, most companies have standard processes that define how an employee should be disciplined, starting with verbal warnings, moving on to written warnings or probationary periods, and ultimately, ending with termination.”

Of course, this patient approach to discipline shouldn’t apply to employees who are flagrantly disruptive or abusive. “If the behavioral violation is so severe — say, an employee punches another employee at work — immediate termination may be affected,” Boese emphasizes. “The key for most companies is to define, codify and communicate a set of behavioral standards and expectations, as well as the penalties for violating these standards and expectations, and to maintain consistency as to how they’re applied over time. Employees need to clearly understand the expectations and see that these are enforced consistently, or else they won’t have any teeth, and managers won’t be taken seriously.”

So far, so standard. But what about employees who aren’t acting up, but rather just can’t seem to do their job, no matter how much they’re begged, threatened or cajoled? In these all-too-common cases, Boese recommends that it’s on managers to lend a helping hand. “For employee performance issues — quality of work, speed, accuracy — more and more employers are adopting a feedback/coaching approach over a more punitive type of approach,” he says. “The idea is that an employee and manager have more frequent and brief meetings, where any performance issues or challenges can be openly discussed. The manager then offers suggestions and additional resources or training to help the employee improve.”

The idea is that this more consistent approach to a workplace problem helps to nip them in the bud before they get out of hand. “The concept is to create a more open conversation, encourage both sides to share their views and not let problems or performance issues linger or escalate,” Boese explains. “There are only a few reasons for employee performance being poor, and many of them can be addressed by more open and frequent feedback and communication.”

But then, what of our second (perhaps more telling) question: Is punishing your employees more effective than rewarding them? Not according to Boese. “If an employee isn’t performing up to the acceptable standard, it’s more effective to help them improve and gather more experience,” he explains. “Most people really want to succeed and do a good job, and if they truly don’t want to improve, the company is better off moving away from them, rather than trying to coerce better performance. Sometimes an employee simply isn’t able to perform a certain job — the skills are too hard to learn, or there are physical demands — and no amount of punishment or positive coaching is going to help. But that’s more of an issue with recruiting and assessment processes not working in order to best match the person with the job.”

In short: As a manager, you need to put the work in to get your poor-performing employees up to speed. And if it becomes clear they’re never going to make it, you just need to cut them loose.

Finally, we hope you’ll notice, unspecified California retail chain, that at no point does any of this advice involve hitting your employees with literal sticks.