If you discipline staff more than you promote them, is it time to rethink your HR policy?

Punishment with a Great Knout. Russia, 18th ce...

Punishment with a Great Knout. Russia, 18th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An organisation’s policies and rules show the internal culture. If the documents are written to protect the organisation first and the employee second, you know there may be a flawed culture. The policies set the framework for rewards and punishments.  In some organisations, or industries, it is hard to reward staff directly. For example, governments are not usually run for a profit so bonus structures and financial rewards are limited.  As a recent study of senior management in local government revealed, Councils can attract and retain talent, if the work has to be made interesting and varied.


The challenge is to keep staff at all levels motivated and engaged with the work so that the best results are produced.  However, the danger is that with rewards limited, the focus turns to punishments, or the threat of punishments, to motivate and encourage staff.  What can then occur is a downward cycle as staff worry about making mistakes, their stress increases, and they underperform, which in turn leads to managers seeking punishments to improve performance. The stress created by the culture limits performance.

To stop this downward spiral, an organisation has to look at how it uses rewards and punishments.  If it sees disciplinary punishments as the “cost of doing business”, the policies will show this.  In the HR policy, the sections on grievances and how to discipline staff will outnumber those on rewarding them or promoting them. In such a culture, the staff often react to the disciplinary system by instituting grievances. Thus, the unspoken dialogue emerges between punishment and grievances.

The disciplinary dialectic needs to be seen in a wider context to fix it. Here a systems approach can work. If grievances and punishments are seen as “waste”, the focus can shift to prevent and cut them.  The organisation can restructure its approach to these events to cut them and not accept them. At the same time, managers need to be trained to approach conflict at work without resorting to the stick at the first opportunity.  One way to do this is to include the managers in any disciplinary procedure against staff.  The manager would have to explain how they had helped the staff before the disciplinary was invoked. In doing this, the staff issue is also owned by a manager.  In this regard, one could look at manager’s regular assessments to see how they have avoided disciplinary actions and grievances.


By changing the approach, one can create what Knox D’Arcy consulting call an active management cycle where staff and managers are working together.  The managers are actively involved in the work to prevent the conditions that lead to a disciplinary or a grievance.  However, this requires managers to change their focus on how they work as well as senior managers’ assessment of their work.

The performance management framework can help focus on the issue. A performance indicator could measure the number of grievances and disciplinary actions.  If an organisation does not do this, it may suggest that they have an internal communications system that can send “critical information” upwards.  The performance indicator, even if this done informally, will give managers an insight into the corporate culture.  In particular, bad news travel far and fast as staff become aware of who was disciplined and why, if only to avoid it.  If punishments are used as a first resort, then staff will know it. They will avoid challenging decisions, even ones they know are wrong, if only to avoid the threat of being seen as “insubordinate” or “awkward.”  The managers will not see that when workers fail they are failing as managers. When an employee makes a mistake then the manager needs to take responsibility. The manager is responsible for how the staff was hired, how they are trained, and most importantly how they are managed. The lessons for overcoming many of the performance issues that lead to grievances or punishments can be found in better coaching and leadership.

The indicator will help senior managers understand where challenge is muted or undermined.  Workers who know they are going to be disciplined are less likely to speak up and offer a critical appraisal of the challenges and the work.  What will compound this problem is if managers “push down” more responsibility to staff under the guise of “empowering” them. The staff will have increased responsibility if things go wrong, but very little authority to change things.  What happens is that managers are implicitly encouraged to disengage from managing and they stop actively managing. By disengaging in direct management, they can avoid the responsibility that comes with being actively involved in the work of their direct reports. When an employee becomes a problem, it is then easier to describe them as an errant employee or a rogue employee.

As a result, line manager will revert to using the stick (management disciplinary tools) to keep staff in line. What happens is the managers stop managing and start punishing staff.  If an employee makes a mistake, and the first resort is to the disciplinary procedure and not trying to figure why they made the mistake, what caused, it, how to avoid it in the future and work better. Instead, they will know what they did wrong because they will have a permanent reminder in their file, but very little if anything that will tell them what to do right.  Moreover, their manager will be less likely to offer preventive measures because that would undermine the reason for the punishment in the first place.  Such an approach seems easy for the managers because they have a clear approach.  In practice, the approach creates more work for them without fully realizing its source.

If an employee makes a mistake, then they need to be shown why it was a mistake, how to do it right for the next time, and then explained the consequences of getting it wrong. While this may require active management, this approach saves work because staff understand why they are doing what they are doing.

The goal is to get staff to work better and to do this they need better management and rewards systems and not punishment and control mechanisms.  The choice is there for all managers and companies to make.  What choice has your employer made?


What to do?

  1. Review your HR policies; do they emphasise rewards or punishment?
  2. Do you have performance indicators to capture how your organisation is using punishments and rewards?
  3. Have those areas with high usage of punishments been helped to use active management and lean management techniques?
  4. Does the organisation focus on preventing disciplinary and grievances and not seeing them as part of doing business?
  5. Do you have a rewards structure that give staff positive reinforcement even when direct promotion or financial rewards are not available?

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in culture, learning organisation, management and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.