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The fallacy of the disciplinary procedure

Opinion Written by John Berry on 27th December 2013. Reading time: 3 minutes

process flowThere is a confused state existing in companies across the land.

Many firms use a single corrective action procedure for all instances where they wish to tackle specific issues in an employee covering behaviour, capability and sickness. This single procedure is generally referred to as the disciplinary procedure. ACAS, the employment advisory service, supports this single procedure approach. This post discusses the fallacy of the disciplinary procedure as a single instrument for effecting corrective action.

Some firms recognise that sickness and discipline are two different things and hence have separate procedures for managing staff back into work and for managing both behavioural and performance issues.

Other firms recognise that having two procedures is inadequate and rightly differentiate between disciplinary issues and capability issues by having separate procedures for absence, disciplinary and capability.

No One Policy

What we’re really arguing here is that there is no one policy, practice or procedure that is adequate to cover the whole business of managing people. So let's look at why this is and how a manager can proceed to effect corrective action of any sort in the performance of their staff.

People are complex beings. There are something like 20 headline characteristics that we can use to describe a person. Each of these characteristics has a bearing on the person's performance.

The manager senses that the performance of the person falls short of expectations. If we think of human action as a system, performance is the output and these human characteristics are the inputs. In a control sense the manager is therefore trying to gain the performance required by adjusting the inputs to the system.

These human characteristics fall into groups. There’s not perhaps much we can change about a person's general mental ability or intelligence and little for that matter that we can change in their personality since that is substantially fixed and stable. It's also difficult to change an employee’s social capital and emotional intelligence and probably impossible to change more esoteric things such as someone’s volitional control or self efficacy and such characteristics tend to be more the subject of discussion with organisational psychologists. But a manager can work to change an employee's behaviour through the establishment of norms. The manager can also change an employee's attitude and beliefs at least towards the company and their colleagues.

Role of Development

Possibly one of the greatest influences that a manager can have on their staff is in their skills and knowledge. Staff skills and knowledge come together in what is termed competency. Competency, and to a lesser extent behaviour, attitude and beliefs, can be changed through training and development.

Finally, the more obvious human characteristics, the physical characteristics of the employee and their fitness and health, can be influenced and this is of course why the general subject of wellness has come to the fore in firms.

These characteristics noted above are the most obvious but there are plenty more.

The manager's role is to achieve and sustain performance in each staff member. Each staff member is described by their characteristics. These characteristics are used in the first instance to recruit the right person for the job in hand. That done, the manager must continually effect corrective action in performance – sometimes marginally and other times hugely. The question therefore is which characteristic is the manager to target to achieve a given performance output?

The Fallacy of the Disciplinary Procedure

As soon as the question is phrased in this way, the use of a disciplinary procedure to attempt to effect corrective action becomes absurd. We only have to try to answer the question to see how inappropriate a single procedure is. Perhaps for example an employee is given a new tool to use and they fail to master its use. Is this because they are unable to cope physically or because the training was inadequate or because they don't have the general mental ability to cope or because they generally have a poor attitude towards change? Discipline is used to correct general behaviour that is not conducive to the company’s aims. None of these in the example above is about general behaviour.

We could do the same analysis in an example where a company has three procedures - sickness absence, disciplinary and capability. The result would be the same. Even three procures would be inadequate.

The key argument presented here is that there are many procedures needed by a manager to effect corrective action when performance falls below that expected.

What Policies and Procedures?

A general performance management procedure is needed and with that objective setting and performance appraisal in order to tell when performance is on par and therefore when performance falls below par. A robust recruitment process is needed to get the right person into the job in the first place. A communications process is essential to communicate the norms and values of the company and to illustrate acceptable behaviour or indeed prosocial behavior - behaviour that the company expects rather than that which it would recognise as antisocial. Processes for training and development are needed when the root of the problem is centred on capability, with the formal capability procedure being invoked only when training and development fails and all options have been exhausted.

Again we could go on. This blog has argued that humans are complex beings described by a host of characteristics. Hence managers need to be trained to recognise when performance falls below par and to identify which characteristic or characteristics to address in order to recover. It's never a question of forcing an employee into one, two or even three procedures. Procedures are essential but they will always be inadequate.


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