The Relationship Side of Disciplining

By Edwin Ebreo

When employees violate company policies, it is the supervisor or manager’s job to give the appropriate sanction. If an employee’s offense is minor or not grave enough to cause termination, the penalized employee will continue to be that supervisor’s staff and the supervisor will have to continue relying on that employee’s performance and results. How do you as a supervisor apply disciplinary action and build a stronger relationship with that employee at the same time? I believe this is an important question because often, violations of company policy result to loss of trust by the superior and embarrassment and resentment by the erring employee. Some relationships erode beyond repair after a confrontation due to policy violation. It is of no wonder why some supervisors look the other way when employees violate minor rules. This is probably because they don’t want to go through the confrontational, energy-zapping and relationship-damaging disciplinary action procedures. If you are a supervisor or a manager, here are a few suggestions on how to handle this kind of situation.

Be Clear About Your Objective
Disciplinary actions are more corrective measures than punishment. The punishment component is in place as a preventive measure. It is supposed to deter employees from violating policies and with sufficient communication it should. If an employee violates a policy, it is important to keep in mind that you are correcting performance or behavior. You’ve got to have a plan in order to be able to do this well. Why? Because every word you say or action you take may change the focus of the task  from being a corrective action that it should be to a revenge or punishment for a misdeed.

Choose to Trust
When you give another person another chance give it fully. After a suspension, the employee will go back to work with some degree of uncertainty about your confidence in that person. It is imperative that you are able to communicate that as long as the person do not violate another policy, that person have nothing to worry about. Encourage the person to concentrate on performance and make yourself more available as a coach so the person can feel that you are after his success and not his hide. I know that this can be difficult because of the trust-breaking nature of violations. However, lack of trust can have an unproductive effect to work relationship. While you might be thinking that it is the erring employee who should reach out and prove he can be trusted again, as a supervisor, you can choose to take the high ground by showing the person he is being trusted again.

Before or after the disciplinary action is served, it is important for both parties to talk. Serving a memo without talking sends a message that  the disciplinary action is a punishment and not a corrective measure. What should you as a supervisor say in this kind of situation?  Here are some statements I’ve used in the past that you might want to consider

  • “It pains me to ever have to issue this disciplinary action to you but rules are rules and we have to follow them otherwise we should just remove them”.
  • “Please think of this as a reminder that the company expects better from you and when you return to work, you can be assured that those expectations will still be there.”
  • “Let’s learn from this experience and move on so we can focus on the work at hand.”
  • “I want to be able to trust you again when you go back to work, what kind of commitment can I get from you to strengthen that trust?”
  • (And some encouragement for good measure) “I have every reason to believe that you can do better and I look forward to it. Please let me know what I can do so we can help each other better.

Feel free to use them in full or in parts depending on your unique situation.
Model the way
There is a reason why leadership is attached to your role as a supervisor or manager. This is because you need to lead. If you want a stronger more productive relationship with your employees, you need to show it by reaching out and helping an erring employee regain confidence in himself. Let him know that the chance he is having is being given in full and with your support. Remember the father and the prodigal son. Celebrate the return and allow the person to renew himself to you and the other members of the team. Just like in the prodigal son story, there will be those who will raise their eyebrows about the treatment you are giving a returning son, you may have to explain what you are trying to do.

Preventing this from happening
Building a positive relationship with your employees but at the same time establishing a firm stand against violating policies is critical to maintaining discipline in the workplace. Let it be known to them what you will and will not tolerate and remind them from time to time. If you build a strong enough relationship with your employees and they have a crystal clear understanding that you value alignment and discipline, they will do the right thing.

This quote posted in Facebook by a friend named Mars Paruli inspired this article:

“Correction does much, but encouragement does more. Encouragement after censure is as the sun after a shower.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This topic is also being discussed in our workshops on the following topics:

Basics of Leadership and Management

Building Strategic Partnership Between Line Managers and HR

Handshake photo came from