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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 7 * April 12, 1999

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The 'Fire' Department – Effective
Discipline in a Complex World

The Human Resources Division in which I work has just finished compiling statistics for the most recent 12-month period. This revealing look back at the staff’s work documented the fact that approximately one disciplinary action per day was implemented and approximately once a week, an employee was terminated by the county. There were many other statistics, which were positive in nature and looked at the number of people hired, promoted, those who received raises, etc.

The statistics on disciplinary actions, however, give me the opportunity to discuss some of the main considerations in effective discipline. There are many to choose from and, in fact, these form the basis of training efforts that the HR Doctor conducts to try to help managers identify and reduce HR liabilities. In this brief column, however, I want to highlight a few of the most important ones.

The first is the link between disciplinary actions and job relatedness. The simple rule to keep in mind is that no disciplinary action should ever occur without the manager being able to clearly demonstrate the link between the reprimand, suspension, demotion or dismissal, and failures of performance or behavior at work. Disciplinary actions that are not job-related are simply not appropriate and not defensible. The burden is on the manager to be able to demonstrate job-relatedness. This is absolutely necessary in all cases which involve "for cause" disciplinary actions.

In other words, where employees have "property rights" in their jobs, through civil services rules and regulations, union contracts, state law, or local policy, the burden is on the managers to show job-relatedness and that a "preponderance of evidence" supports the action. Reviewing the background of proposed discipline with HR professionals is a critical aid for managers in meeting this burden.

Disciplinary action is most often taken with the hope that sanction for negative behavior or performance will result in prevention and improvement in the future. In that sense, discipline should have a positive objective as its outcome. Discipline is not properly done for purposes or revenge of retaliation. Its objective is for an employee to clearly understand and to reinforce the importance of meeting expected behavior and performance standards.

Managers make a critical error when they "walk by" something that’s wrong and don’t stop, interrupt and correct improper behavior or performance as soon as it appears.

Managers who know about these problems – or should have known about them – and fail to intervene promptly, place themselves and the agency at greater risk and liability financially, legally, and in terms of agency success. Agencies which tolerate or avoid the constructive confrontation of poor behavior are actually encouraging such behavior.

They are "enabling" the person who behaves poorly to continue behaving that way or get even worse. They are also sending a very poor message to the other employees who are "listening in at the keyhole" to see how the agency reacts.

One of the HR Doctor’s services is to operate the "HR ER." In other words, managers call, visit, fax, e-mail, etc., acute problems and ask what "treatment" should be applied. However, very often, a manager comes to visit with tales of terror about an employee’s poor behavior, demanding that immediate action take place.

One of the first things done is to review the employee’s personnel file and what do you think is often found in the file? The answer is years of excellent performance evaluations and no documented problems. By the way, guess who often was the person signing these evaluations and endorsing them? The answer is the same manager who now demands the firing of the employee in question. The point here is that there is a reduction in personal accountability in these circumstances. The manager must be a person trained in and willing to document the need for improvement (as well as document and reward excellent performance).

Written documentation is critically important. Avoiding honesty and timeliness in performance evaluations does not help the employee, the manager, or the agency. The bottom line is that people need to know where they stand in their employment relationships and providing such information in a documented fashion is, perhaps, the most important role of performance evaluation. Managers need to pay close attention to meeting this important professional responsibility.

Documentation also helps a manager by taking excuses away when an employee behaves improperly. An agency which conducts sexual harassment training for all employees, and documents attendance, is in a much better position to defend itself and to reduce liability. For example, it can demonstrate that the employee who says, "I never knew about any policy" was, in fact, at the training program and received information about the policy.

The concept of taking excuses away as an approach links directly to increasing personal accountability for one’s own behavior. That is another fundamental objective of disciplinary action.

Managers who meet these responsibilities, who are not afraid to ask for help from the colleagues in HR or the county attorney’s office will ease their workloads as a result of their diligence. There is much more to effective discipline than the points made above. However, the reader would be well served by taking the tips above and thinking about them every time the difficult task of taking disciplinary action occurs.

Finally, discipline is a matter that demands personal respect and sensitive handling. It is not something to be done in public or in an arrogant, callous manner by the manager. These latter approaches can give rise to workplace violence, lawsuits and discrimination complaints. The HR Doctor has advised, in the past, that it is easier to sing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" than it is to sing "Rescue Me." Nowhere is this more important than in taking disciplinary action with care and sensitivity.

You can contact the HR Doctor at the e-mail address below or by fax at 954/796-9495.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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