By William Wiley, August 28, 2019
Every now and then, I’ll make a statement in a class, and some bright student will say: “Where did you get that?” If the issue has to do with something recent, often I am able to find a citation to a case decision or perhaps a regulation that resolves the question. But every now and again, I get a question about something that is so fundamental I can’t remember (nor find) where I got it.
For example, recently I was looking through some old Board decisions that made me ask the question: “Why do we discipline?” For many years, I have taught that the purpose of discipline is to correct behavior and prevent future occurrences, not to punish for the sake of retribution or extracting pain from the employee simply for the sake of extracting pain. However, when I tried to find the source of that answer, I found very little. The Merit Systems Protection Board doesn’t seem to have addressed the question. The Office of Personnel Management has some very nice regulations relative to the procedures by which discipline can be taken, with the admonition that it can only be taken for reasons that support the efficiency of the service. But that doesn’t really tell us much.
The answer to this question seems so fundamental that I am absolutely blown away that I cannot find what answer might be. And the answer is absolutely critical to assessing some of the actions taken by MSPB. For example, in 2015, the Board upheld the mitigation of a removal to a 180-day suspension (based on the mitigating circumstance of the employee’s medical condition). The employee’s misconduct was falling asleep at work. If the purpose of discipline is to correct misbehavior, does the Board really believe that a six-month suspension is necessary to motivate a sick employee not to be sick? In another decision a couple of days earlier, the Board concluded that a 30-day suspension was somehow appropriate for an individual suffering from major depressive disorder. I just cannot understand how that motivation could possibly be the right answer. See Banks v. DVA, CB-7121-15-0006-V-1 (Feb. 27, 2015)(NP), Bowman v. SBA, 2015 MSPB 18.But if that’s not the answer, what is? If we are not trying to correct behavior through negative reinforcement, then what the devil are we doing by disciplining employees? Would someone out there with a paygrade above mine (and as my pay grade is effectively GS-zero, so that includes everybody), please answer this question? If the purpose of discipline is to correct behavior, then the Board was absolutely crazy to be mitigating removals to 60-, 90-, 120-, and 180-day suspensions. There has never been a study nor is there a principle of psychology that supports discipline to correct behavior at this level of punishment. If there is another purpose for discipline, it would be terrific if we all knew what that was so that supervisors could take that into consideration when analyzing the Douglas Factors. Wiley@FELTG.com