Supervisors Should Manage Consequences, not Discipline


One of the critical responsibilities that rests on the shoulders of supervisors is employee discipline. Many times discipline is viewed as something negative hence it tends to be avoided — which just causes more problems. One way to address this issue is to change mindset and terminology about discipline and instead focus on the concept of managing consequences.

Managing consequences is very different from doling out discipline. Discipline is nearly always perceived as a punishment because it is viewed as arbitrary, it has only a slight chance at effecting long-term changes in performance or behavior, and it is solely at the discretion of the supervisor. Punishment can be subjective according to the supervisor’s mood that day, whether it is a top employee, or a slug who is at the focus of the issue.

I’ve heard supervisors make statements like, “I’m going to write them up” or “Guess I’m going to have to chew their butt.” By making these kinds of remarks, supervisors are essentially communicating that they are now taking ownership of the problem in hopes of changing employee behavior or actions.

You’ve also seen examples of this in national media when a judge hands down a sentence to a convicted criminal, or a defendant is found not guilty, and people then become so focused on this decision and whether it was fair or appropriate that all of the focus is taken off of the defendant. When relating this back to the issue of employee discipline, how can we attain a successful outcome when the supervisor does not own the problem? What if we turned that around and simply managed the consequences based on the choice, as represented by action, of the employee? If we have any hope of correcting the problem or behavior, which should be our sole intent, ownership must stay with the employee to fix the problem.

The supervisor’s focus in managing consequences is to set the conditions and expectations so that the performance standards, performance measures, and consequences are clear and understood by both parties. Then consequences, if enacted, are done only because of the choices made by the employee and not the supervisor. If the issue is resolved after the first discussion with the employee great, but if the problem continues then the supervisor has a set path to the next step and the employee is well aware of what lies ahead of them.

Here is an example. Two siblings are forced to stay inside on a very rainy day so they end up playing tag around the house. Their father is making a series of business calls and shouts to them to stop “or else.” They do stop, but within minutes are back running noisily through the house. Their father ends a call and tells them to go to their room and not to come out until he calls them. This is an example of punishment rather than consequences. The end result was totally at the discretion of the father involving both what and when. How do you change this into a consequence situation? Likely the father could have taken a few more moments to warn them of the undesired behavior and if it continued they would be sent to their room for the rest of the day (or whatever consequence is deemed appropriate given the unwanted behavior). Then when the siblings kick it up again the consequences are managed by the father solely based on the actions of the siblings. They choose not to stop the unwanted behavior, therefore they choose the known consequences.

I recognize that not all circumstances will afford the opportunity to set consequences because some behaviors or violations, even committed for the first time, can be so severe they warrant significant action. However, the majority of on-going behavior or poor job performance issues can readily be set-up so supervisors can respectfully manage consequences and allow employees to own the responsibility to correct the problem knowing what those consequences are if they choose not to fix it.

Chuck Bayne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Wow, I’m a teacher and I love the way you put this in perspective….I don’t discipline, I manage the consequences for the choices the students have made. I’m even going to start using this terminology with them so that maybe one day they’ll get it!

Katarina Hong

Your view on discipline is one that needs to be heard. I completely agree how everything should be clear and understood between all parties involved. I think it is important to respectfully manage consequences, like you said, to let employees own up to it and learn to correct the problem.