By Deborah Hopkins and William Wiley, February 19, 2020

Have you ever heard this saying: You can’t be halfway pregnant   — either you are, or you aren’t? There are a number of things in life that are all or nothing, with no halfway. Either it is, or it isn’t.

One of those things is discipline. An action taken against an employee who has committed misconduct in the federal workplace is either discipline, or it isn’t. There’s no halfway. I can’t tell you how many agency policies we have seen – yes, even recently — that list the items that constitute Formal Discipline, but then have other sections highlighted as “Informal Discipline” or “Other Discipline” or, perhaps most confusingly, just Discipline. Other policies list the steps of Progressive Discipline and include items such as Counseling and Oral Reprimands. That’s another mistake and isn’t legally accurate.

Here’s what we know about the requirements for an action to be considered discipline in the federal workplace, as laid out in Bolling v. Air Force, 9 MSPR 335 (Dec. 21, 1981):

Discipline must be in writing. If a supervisor yells and screams at an employee, calls the employee all kinds of nasty names , throws a chair, slams a door, threatens to fire the employee, or anything else along those lines, that supervisor might feel like she is disciplining the employee, and indeed, the employee may even feel disciplined from the sting of those words. However, under the law, the employee has not been disciplined. Those words and gestures matter not one iota under the law. If it isn’t in writing, it isn’t discipline. (It’s definitely bad management, but we’ll save that conversation for another article.)

Discipline must be grievable. As explained in Bolling, for an action to count as discipline, the employee must be “given an opportunity to dispute the action by having it reviewed, on merits, by an authority different from the one that took the action.” Just because an item is in writing, doesn’t make it grievable. An agency needs to look to its administrative grievance procedure or its union contract to see what types of written documents are grievable. Typically, items such as counseling memos, emails, letters of caution, or written expectations, do not meet these criteria and, therefore, are excluded from the definition of discipline.

The action must be made a matter of record. This requirement essentially means that there is official agency paperwork involved; the item belongs in the employee’s OPF. A lot of supervisors put notes and memos into the OPF, but the only things that truly belong there, for the purposes of counting as discipline, have an SF-50 attached. A reprimand does not have an SF-50 because it is not a pay action. However, it is commonly stored in the OPF in the temporary section (for those who remember OPFs before they were electronic, on the left side of the folder), where it does not remain in the file past its expiration date. A reprimand is considered discipline until its expiration date, because it meets all the legal requirements of discipline: It is written, grievable, and a matter of record.

All this brings us back to the confusion around “informal discipline,” or whatever your agency calls it. There is no accepted definition for informal discipline, and it does you more harm than help if you try to draw a distinction.

If a supervisor mistakenly issues three types of informal discipline against an employee, and on the fourth offense decides that it’s time for a removal under progressive discipline, she is going to be upset when she realizes the informal procedures she followed in her agency’s policy have carried exactly ZERO legal weight for the purposes of progressive discipline. At the very most, she might have some evidence for the Douglas factor on notice, but that’s about it. Here’s why this is important:

Efficiency: As we have taught in our FELTG seminars since the cooling of the Earth, the best practice is to do as little as required by law when dealing with a problem employee. The more you do, the longer it takes, the more you give the employee to grieve and complain about, and the greater your chances of making a mistake. If you create a category of actions unrecognized by law or otherwise unnecessary, you make it more difficult to efficiently correct behavior.

Confusion: If you create something called “informal discipline,” you confuse the poor front-line supervisor. When should the supervisor engage in informal discipline? Is there a requirement to use informal discipline before he uses the real thing? How is the employee supposed to view the administration of an informal disciplinary action? Most importantly, what is the judge or the arbitrator supposed to do with an informal discipline policy? Confusion does you no good when trying to manage workplace behavior.

Litigation: MSPB administrative judges closely review the removal of employees from federal service. If a judge discovers that you have mistakenly considered an act of “informal discipline” as a step in progressive discipline, then you stand a big fat chance of the removal being mitigated or even set aside on appeal. Litigation is hard. Don’t create the potential for mistakes that are unnecessary.

If you’re stuck with one of these policies and aren’t in a position to change it, don’t sweat it. Most of these policies do not require a supervisor to start with the informal before going the disciplinary route, so a supervisor should be free, to go right to the reprimand and skip the Letter of Whatever.

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