By William Wiley, March 7, 2017

A “theory” is a contemplative and rationalized type of thinking, based on observations, deductions, and conclusions. In other words, it’s a reasoned explanation of the way that things happen and is predictive about how they will happen in the future.

That’s exactly what we need in the world of federal employee accountability, and I think we should be embarrassed that we don’t have one already. Probably every reader of this newsletter is involved in some way in holding civil servants accountable for their misconduct. Yet we as a professional group have no official formal theory to guide us on the best approaches to take when disciplining an employee, an analysis of why we bother to discipline at all, and an integration of that contemplative type of thinking into the laws and regulations that limit how discipline will be administered in federal agencies.

And this is a big deal. For example, do we discipline someone to punish him for an act of misconduct, or do we discipline him to correct his behavior? Depending on your theory of discipline, your answers will be different:

  • Punitive: If the goal is to punish the employee, to take “an eye for an eye,” then we select a discipline option in rough value to the harm caused by the misconduct. Back from lunch 10 minutes late, thereby delaying a coworker’s lunch by 10 minutes? You get a reprimand. Do it again in six months, another reprimand (because the harm is the same each time). For each act of discipline, we weigh the harm, then try to find a punishment of about that value to be administered. Our criminal justice system in general selects punishments in this manner. Each act of criminal behavior stands relatively independent of the others that might have occurred previously in a particular criminal’s life.
  • Corrective: If the goal is to correct behavior, when selecting a penalty option, we would consider the harm caused by the current act of misconduct PLUS the history of prior instances of discipline and their success or failure in dissuading the employee from engaging in future misconduct. The workplace theory of progressive discipline is based on this approach. If two employees come back from lunch 30 minutes late, and one of them has previously been disciplined, then that employee might receive a stronger punishment than the employee who we’ve never had to correct before. In comparison, if the goal were to punish and seek retribution, then both would receive the same penalty regardless of previous attempts to correct behavior.

The reason this is so important is that MSPB seems to confuse these two approaches to a general theory of discipline when deciding appropriate penalties. In most cases, the Board appears to adhere to the corrective approach to discipline, and does so when analyzing the Douglas Factor penalty selection factors. If the employee has prior discipline, then the agency’s decision makers are empowered to administer more severe discipline than they would otherwise. But in other cases, the Board will mitigate a removal to a suspension even though the employee has previously been suspended; e.g., Suggs v. DVA, 2010 MSPB 99. The Board has even been known to mitigate a removal to a suspension of shorter duration than one administered previously. If the goal were to correct behavior, if a 10-day suspension did not do it, why on Earth would you think that a 5-day suspension would be a better subsequent action?

In a related manner, the Board recently has moved away from a theory of discipline founded firmly in progressive discipline. The old Civil Service Commission used to teach that the federal service has a three-strike discipline philosophy:

  • First offense: Reprimand
  • Second offense: Suspension
  • Third Offense: Removal

I remember my Commission instructor in 1977 explaining the three-strike approach by saying that a federal agency does not have to continue to employ an individual who does not respond to discipline; e.g., that responding to discipline by correcting one’s behavior is an important characteristic of being a civil servant.

In comparison, MSPB has moved over the past decade toward discounting prior discipline UNLESS the discipline was administered for misconduct similar to the current act of misconduct. Taken to the extreme, this approach would mean that an agency that has 50 charges in its table of penalties would be expected to try to correct the employee’s behavior RELATIVE TO EACH OF THE 50 CHARGES prior to removing him using progressive discipline. The absurdity of this outcome highlights the fallacy of this approach.

And finally, as we’ve whined about in this here newsletter before, some of the Board’s mitigations of removals to lesser punishments make no sense if our discipline theory is to correct behavior, and make perfect sense if our discipline theory is to punish behavior. We’ve seen cases in which MSPB mitigates a removal to a 30, 60, or 90-day suspension WITHOUT ANY CONSIDERATION ABOUT WHETHER A LONGER SUSPENSION IS MORE LIKELY TO CORRECT BEHAVIOR THAN A SHORTER SUSPENSION. In other cases, we’ve seen the Board mitigate removals to a demotion WITHOUT ANY CONSIDERATION ABOUT WHETHER THAT PENALTY WILL CORRECT BEHAVIOR OR EVEN IF THE AGENCY HAS LOWER-LEVEL WORK FOR THE DEMOTED EMPLOYEE TO DO. The mitigation of removals to demotions and long suspensions is based more on the Punitive theory of discipline than the Corrective theory of discipline.

With all due respect, MSPB should not be in the business of deciding the discipline theory for the federal service. Our leadership components should do that: OPM, senior agency managers, the President himself, perhaps. MSPB should apply the law and enforce that theory, but not make it up, certainly not on the fly and as inconsistently as it has been doing recently. A discipline theory should be borne of line management concerns, not legal concerns.

So what would be the components of a good theory of discipline? Well, aren’t you lucky. Here at FELTG, we have more opinions than the new administration has vacancies in senior positions. If you are at a policy level and are considering developing a theory of discipline for your agency or perhaps for the entire federal government (yes, I’m talking to you, new OPM Director, wherever you are), here are some essential elements of a good discipline policy:

  1. Discipline should be corrective, not punitive. If a discipline option does not have the potential to correct behavior, it should not be used.
  2. There are three (and only three) actions that should be used to correct bad behavior: Reprimands, Suspensions, and Removals. No more Letters of Caution, Admonishments, Counselings, Warnings, Expectations, or singing freaking Kumbaya to the employee to try to get her to do what you want her to do. She either does it or she gets disciplined for not doing it (or you choose to do nothing, if you’re that kind of supervisor).
  3. Suspensions should be avoided. There is no evidence that a suspension is an effective negative reinforcement that acts to dissuade future misconduct. In addition, the agency pays a price when it denies itself the services of the employee via a suspension. It either gets by without the contribution the employee would have made on the days of suspension, or it has to punish coworkers by requiring them to do the bad hombre’s work while he is home watching Fox & Friends. Remember, we’re trying to be corrective, not punitive.
  4. There should be three steps in progressive discipline: 1) Reprimand, 2) Final Reprimand, then 3) Removal if acts of misconduct continue to occur. And for the purposes of progressive discipline, it is immaterial that the prior discipline was for a different type of misconduct. We’re trying to get the employee to obey ALL of the agency’s rules, not just one at a time.
  5. If you have need for the employee’s services in a lower-graded position, you can offer that position to him as an alternative to being removed. If he declines the voluntary demotion, he gets removed. If he accepts the voluntary demotion, he waives any rights he might have to challenge the action.

Get organized. Take control. Develop a theory of discipline, put it into your official discipline policy statement, and go out there and hold employees accountable. Leave the singing of Kumbaya to the lovely and talented Joan Baez. [email protected]

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