Thank you, Sir--May I have another? Smart discipline hurts...but in a good way


So I’m driving down one of Kansas City’s busier streets after work one snowy January night (exact time 6:30:19.9 pm…more later on why I know this). As I go through an intersection, a strobe light flashes behind me, twice, reminiscent of a camera flash. I briefly wonder what this is about; but think nothing more of it.

The better-educated among my esteemed readers will not be surprised to learn that, a few days later, I received a document in the mail that solved the mystery. Yep. You guessed it. I have been the “victim” of one of those automated intersection cameras designed to catch people who are…um…shall we say, tardy, in entering the intersection. (It sounds so much better than “running the red light.”)

After a few choice words unsuitable for printing in this respected publication, I examined the document more closely. There it was: irrefutable photographic proof that the light was red just before I entered the intersection (timestamp: 06:30:18.9), and was certainly red as I was passing under the light, exactly one second later (see time above). And if this wasn’t enough humiliation, they’ve also provided a “helpful” Internet link so that I can see a short video of my transgression.

Now, I would like to state for the record, your honor, that it was snowing that night and the streets were covered in a few inches of slush, and I did (briefly) consider—and then reconsider—stopping for the light. But in the end, I made the split-second decision that attempting to stop might be more dangerous than going through the light.

After-the-fact rationalization, you say? Probably. At least I’m pretty sure the judge would think so.

In the final analysis, I was forced to admit that I simply screwed up. If the roads were so slick that I couldn’t stop without fear of losing control, then I probably should have been driving more slowly (although, thankfully, the video record also shows that at least I wasn’t speeding, on top of everything else).

So, as I made my online payment for this “non-moving violation” (a bit of a misnomer, as I was far from stationary at the time), I couldn’t help thinking there had to be a lesson somewhere in all of this (besides the obvious one). And, of course, there is. And, of course, it’s an HR lesson—an HR lesson about effective disciplinary action.

Despite our best efforts in terms of leadership, communication, recruitment and training, there will always be miscreants like me who will break the rules. How we deal with those people can determine whether they continue to do so, and more importantly, how engaged they will be in the meantime.

Formal disciplinary action generally serves two intended purposes: 1) corrects the unwanted behavior; 2) provides documentation should further, more severe action be necessary. In order to accomplish these two things, there are some basic rules that we should follow:

Rule 1: Just Do It. With all apologies to Nike, the most fundamental rule of delivering effective disciplinary action is to actually do it. Sounds silly, but the fact is that many managers avoid this process like the plague. Don’t be one of them. If you have an employee who’s breaking the rules, failing to confront the issue is the worst thing you can do. It’s like ignoring that pain in your upper right molar. It may go away temporarily, but it will always come back, and most of the time it will be worse than before, necessitating more severe corrective measures than originally needed. (Can you say root canal?) Obviously, my home town doesn’t suffer from such reluctance.

Rule 2: No Time Like the Present. Disciplinary action is usually effective in inverse proportion to the time that elapses between the infraction and the disciplinary action. The longer you wait to deliver it, the less effective it will be. You want the employee to be able to connect the punishment to the undesirable behavior. This doesn’t work so well if they can’t even remember what they did! I received my love letter from the city Photo Enforcement Program within days of running that red light, while it was still fresh in my mind.

Rule 3: It’s Just Business. Not personal. Focus on the specific behavior you want stopped, not the person. Don’t get into reasons, motivations, discussions about attitude, or their zodiac sign. This is about what they did, not why they did it. Include backup and/or examples of the undesirable behavior. You don’t have to take photos, like my friends at the PEP, but to the extent that you can, you should provide factual, inarguable examples of the behavior you’re trying to correct.

Rule 4: It’s Not Who You Know. Don’t play favorites. If it’s unacceptable for your worst employee to come in 30 minutes late for a shift, it’s unacceptable for your best employee to do so. Inconsistency is the enemy. Am I saying you must treat everyone the same? No. But you must address the situation, regardless of who’s involved. The severity of the corrective action may vary due to past performance, but not the fact that you called them out for the behavior.

Rule 5: Crime and Punishment. Employees must feel that any disciplinary action is fair. Terminating a staff member for coming in five minutes late would probably be overkill (unless it’s a chronic problem you’ve previously warned them about). Conversely, punishing a severe infraction (like threatening another employee or stealing) with a “slap on the wrist” sends the exact opposite message—that “anything goes.” This can sometimes be more art than science, but use your judgment. My $100 fine—while certainly not “a drop in the bucket”—still stings just enough to make me more careful as I approach traffic lights these days.

And in the final analysis, that’s the true “litmus test” of the effectiveness of any disciplinary action. Does what you’ve done change people’s behavior (without humiliating them, alienating them, or otherwise limiting their future productivity)? If so, you’re probably on the right track…or lane.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments or questions via e-mail at