Personnel e.bulletin – October 2017

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Test Yourself: How Would You Respond in These Situations?

Prepared by SESCO Management Consultants

Discipline is one of the most uncomfortable parts of a manager’s job, and these days the increasing prospect of litigation makes it even more daunting. How do you know you’re doing the right thing?

Test yourself with these “discipline troubleshooter” case problems that just might crop up in your workplace:

Situation #1
You decide to terminate an employee who spent most of the day away from her workstation. You’ve warned her about absenteeism in the past, but you’ve also accommodated past requests from her for leave. She claims discrimination because she is from Mexico, and that a white co-worker had left her desk for hours without any consequences. Should you proceed with the termination?

  1. Yes. She has a history of attendance problems, but her co-worker did not.
  2. No. She is protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and can point to the time you treated another worker more leniently.
  3. No. Your granting her leave in the past offsets the hard line you’re taking now.

Situation #2
A trusted team leader who reports to you wants to fire a female employee for poor performance. Her file is clean, but the team leader says her consistent errors have cost the company nearly $100,000. However, he passed her over for a promotion because, he said, women aren’t mechanically inclined to do that job. Your move?

  1. Let him terminate, since her performance is such a grave problem.
  2. Forbid him from terminating her because of his sexist comment. That remark will certainly come back to bite the company.
  3. Investigate his allegations and find out why these problems aren’t in her file.

Situation #3
On his lunch hour, an employee scans personal photos onto his computer. A female co-worker happens to see one of his partially naked wife and complains to you about the “inappropriate” picture. You suspend him for a week, and he files a grievance. Should you reconsider?

  1. Yes. “Inappropriate” behavior is not the same as “offensive” behavior.
  2. No. A racy photo in the workplace cannot be tolerated, lest it creates a hostile work environment.
  3. Yes. But reduce the punishment to a stern reprimand.


  1. In a purely legal context, A is acceptable, since you can show a real performance problem. Just be sure that all employees who break the attendance rule like that receive the same punishment. From a managerial perspective, avoid putting yourself in a place where you have to compare different favors you give to different employees. A sliding scale for meting out discipline will eventually stir up a discrimination case. Set standards and stick to them.
  1. Do not let him fire her before you investigate (C), unless you want your organization to go to court. You should probably discipline him; either he’s exaggerating her problems, or he dropped the ball on giving her an accurate performance review. Only after you have a documented record of poor performance can you — not your subordinate — terminate the employee. And don’t forget to remind him — sternly — that you never want to hear any sexist comments in the workplace again.
  1. C is probably best. A single photo that a co-worker “happens to see” does not a hostile work environment make. He may be guilty of misusing company property, but not necessarily of harassment or offensive behavior — although your company policy may for defensible reasons be very strict on this point.

Ok, now what? If discipline is warranted, what’s the best way to proceed?


4 Rules of Progressive Discipline

Rule 1 – The object of progressive discipline should be to rehabilitate employees, not punish them. Always ask an employee for a reason behind the problem. Never take anything for granted or assume anything. Document everything that is said and done in case the problem persists and you have to go to the next disciplinary step.

Rule 2 — Employees must understand that their behavior violates company rules. Employment law differs from civil law in that “ignorance of law” can be used as a defense. Be thorough when you are disciplining employees. State exactly how the policy has been violated. Give clear-cut examples of what is unacceptable about the behavior. Set the standards to be met so the employees can’t claim they didn’t know they were doing something wrong.

Rule 3 — If employees are not warned about possible consequences of their behavior, a judge or arbitrator may see that as an indication that there hasn’t been any effort at rehabilitation.

Rule 4 — Employees must be treated equally under the progressive discipline system. A manager can’t slap one employee on the wrist, then boot another one out the door for the same offense.

Note: An employee must understand the reason for the penalty and be given a chance to correct the behavior, or the system is not progressive discipline.

____________________________________________________________________________This content was developed by SESCO Management Consultants ( and reprinted with permission. Please consult your HR professional or attorney for further advice, as laws may differ in each state. Any omission or inclusion of incorrect data is unintentional. Please note this article is not intended to provide legal advice or to substitute for supervisor employment law training. Contact SESCO by calling (423) 764-4127 or emailing [email protected] to discuss this topic or any Human Resource or Employee Relations question.

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