By William Wiley, September 18, 2019
Yogi Berra laid down an important principle of life when he delivered the quote in our headline. A less-gifted author, such as your reporter here, might have said something like, “You should know what you’re trying to accomplish before you set out to do it.” Of course, that’s why Yogi is quoted more fondly than Wiley. Yogi is so much more articulate.
This leads us to an article we published a couple of weeks ago about disciplining employees. We presented the question: “Why do supervisors discipline employees?” We thought we should try to nail down our goal if we are to understand the value of and the pathway to administering discipline. Although the article was meant mostly as a thought question for all you philosophers out there, we received a lot of really good reasons from several members of the FELTG Nation.
Historically, this particular article received the second-most FELTG Newsletter comments from you avid readers out there, being surpassed only by Deb’s “How to Dress” piece many years ago (a copy of which is still taped to the inside of my clothes closet door, for easy reference).
A number of responses focused on the statutory requirement that discipline be used for such cause as will promote the efficiency of the service. “We discipline to send a message to the employees” was a common theme. In this same line of thought, one responder said that we use discipline to “control the workplace environment.” A couple of other responses took a different approach, wondering if we should really want employees working for the government who have to be coerced into behaving acceptably. One excellent thinker referenced an article published last year by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that argues that in the modern workplace, discipline has no purpose at all.
What was absent from any of the responses was the belief that we discipline employees to punish them for their wrongdoing, the old eye-for-an-eye tooth-for-a-tooth principle that an employee who has injured the agency is to be penalized to a degree similar to the harm. Frankly, we were glad to see that punishment was not articulated as an objective of discipline.
The distillation of the responses we got is that a supervisor should discipline an errant employee to correct his behavior so that he conforms his conduct to workplace norms in the support of an efficient government. Which takes us to a very real question we should all consider:
If we are disciplining to correct behavior, not to punish behavior, then why do we ever suspend employees as discipline?
If an employee were to do something at work that really hurt the agency, just short of being harmful enough to warrant removal; and if we were intent on punishing the employee, we might well resort to a big long suspension of 90 to 120 days. The US Merit Systems Protection Board is on record as finding such lengthy suspensions to be warranted as mitigation in a few cases over the years in which it has found a removal to be excessive. However, if we were not interested in punishing the employee, and instead had a goal of getting the employee to change his behavior so that he does not engage in future misconduct, then we should look for tools that correct (not punish) behavior. With the corrective approach in mind, when we consider whether we should suspend an employee as discipline, we start to realize a few things about suspensions:
1. There’s no proof that they get employees to correct their behavior. Oh, we’ve all seen employees who were suspended who did not engage in future misconduct, but perhaps they would have refrained from future misconduct with something other than a suspension. I’ve been on the lookout for 40 years for some scientific (preferably double-blind) study out of some reputable research entity that establishes that the greater the degree of lost pay enforced as a disciplinary suspension, the less likely it is that the individual will repeat the misconduct. The closest I’ve come to the severity of punishment correlated with the rate of recidivism is in research done with criminals. And there seems to be no correlation between the length of a sentence and the likelihood that the individual will repeat the criminal act. Your gut may tell you that the greater the suspension, the less likely it is that the individual will repeat the misconduct, but there’s no science to back that up.
2. Suspensions are not free. If a supervisor suspends an employee for three days, what happens to the work the employee would have done had he been at work? Does it go undone? Does it get dumped on coworkers? Do we call in contractors to do the work, or pay overtime? We’ve been told of cases in which agencies had to spend two to three times the employee’s lost salary to get the work done during the employee’s suspension. If I was going to spend that kind of government money, I’d want to be sure I was getting something of greater value in return. Suspensions as corrective tools have not been proven to be that valuable.
3. Suspended employees often challenge the suspensions. EEO complaints are free to the employee and resource-draining for management. Grievances take up a lot of management time, with serious costs if the union invokes arbitration. If the supervisor suspends the employee for more than 10 workdays, there’s the good old MSPB appeal/discovery/hearing/petition-for-review/federal court-times-2 process to be dealt with. If the employee is a whistleblower (aren’t they all?), then there are those delightful folks over at the US Office of Special Counsel who are ready, willing, and able to investigate and prosecute the pants off of a reprising management official
If we are disciplining to control the federal workplace, to modify behavior in support of an efficient government, then we should not use tools that don’t offer the promise of accomplishing that objective. Here within the FELTG neural net, that reality began to settle in about five or six years ago. When asked for advice on the development of a disciplinary policy, we recommend using two reprimands to establish progressive discipline, then removing the non-conforming employee without using suspensions at all. The SHRM article goes so far as to argue that the word “reprimand” is out of place in a modern workplace, and suggests that instead, we use the word “Notice.” Something worth considering.
We think Yogi would be proud of any agency that took this progressive discipline approach: Reprimand, Final Reprimand, then Removal. That’s because we seem to all be in agreement that where we want to end up is with a more efficient federal government, not with punished individuals for the sake of punishment. Wiley@FELTG.com