The Importance Of Discipline

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By Phil La Duke

Safety professionals take great pains to engage workers in safety. While it’s true that engaged workers tend to be more concerned about the safety of the workplace worker engagement can only take us so far. And while it’s unfair to blame the injured worker—a tendency far too common—I’ve seen a decide move away from discipline as a response to unsafe behavior.

The mere mention of discipline raises emotions on both sides of the spectrum. On one end there is a chorus of “here! Here!” spouting mouth-breathers who want to blame every injury on stupid workers who can’t follow directions or won’t follow the rules. On the other end we have a bunch of bleeding hearts that want to blame everything but the responsible party. The answer in most cases lies somewhere in between. The correct approach in most cases lies somewhere in between.

Without Discipline We Institutionalize Unsafe Behavior

We learn through experimentation; we try something and if there is a reward we tend to repeat that behavior and even push the boundaries of the behavior. If we engage in risky behavior that violates policy it’s usually because the risky behavior rewards us in some way. It creates a cycle of risk-reward-risk; we learn that the risks we take aren’t just acceptable they are desirable. We teach our workforce that working out of process is appropriate, acceptable, and desirable; disciplinary action disrupts this cycle.

What’s The Point of Rules that No One Follows?

Discipline, doesn’t just apply to individuals. Process discipline is the extent to which people perform the tasks according to specification; how closely the people adhere to the process. Process discipline is important because despite what some of my detractors seem to think we can’t adequately protect workers who are working out of process. Let’s face it, we build safety protocols around expected behaviors and we tend to expect behaviors that align with the standard operating procedures. When people deliberately defeat the controls we put into place to protect them they are at extreme risk because few organizations plan for that contingency, and that’s where people get hurt. We have to encourage process discipline and apply disciplinary action to those who willfully and deliberately violate the rules.

Guides For Applying Discipline

I’ve seen too many organizations that are too quick to pull the trigger on disciplinary action. Here are some questions you should ask for resorting to disciplinary action:

  • Was the infraction intentional? A lot of time people violate rules through human error; no one is perfect and punishing someone for something they never intended to do is unfair and unjust and likely to create greater problems (grievances, increased turnover, greater absenteeism, or even increased incidence of unsafe behavior).
  • Was the person who violated the rule properly managing his or her performance inhibitors? While you can’t hold someone accountable for something he or she didn’t intend to do, you can hold him or her accountable for managing the things in their lives that increase the likelihood that they will make mistakes—hangovers, troubled home-life, reporting to work unfit for duty, etc. Someone who is managing his or her performance inhibitors can be held to a different standard than someone who does not routinely reports to work in an unfit condition.
  • Were there extenuating circumstances that made the breach acceptable? A person who is acting to serve the greater social good and violates a rule in so doing should not be subject to disciplinary action. Writing someone up for being late for work when they stopped to save the life of an injured motorist is a good way to get featured on the local news or in a viral post on social media, and let’s face it, it serves no good purpose.
  • Am I addressing the infraction or punishing an employee for something else? Whenever I see public outrage over a teacher who posts pictures of her drinking wine or wearing something revealing, I think, “why did they REALLY get fired?” Too often workers aren’t disciplined for what they have done rather for a pattern of behavior. Employers often use discipline as the “gotcha” final straw, bulletproof firing, and typically those employers find themselves on the losing end of a lawsuit.
  • What have I treated similar infractions in the same way? A good indication that you are using discipline inappropriately is if you are reacting to this particular infraction more harshly than you have in the past. Lawyers and Unions fight and win many wrongful terminations simply because the firing manager didn’t follow past practice.
  • Am I reacting to the behavior or the outcome? Too often we react very differently to an infraction that produces an injury or near miss when the outcome really doesn’t matter. Behavior that jeopardizes the safety or well-being of a worker should have an appropriate consequence whether or not the action injures a worker. It’s the behavior we are trying to regulate not the outcome.
  • Am I coaching or punishing? Discipline should be a means of coaching behavior in hopes of developing a safer workplace not a means of retribution. If you find yourself seeking to punish a worker you really should reconsider your position.
  • Did the worker have a viable option to the infraction? Sometimes following the rules puts a worker in more danger than not following the rules. In other cases, the process may call for tools or conditions that aren’t available to the worker. Disciplining a worker when following the rule was impossible is in appropriate.

Sometimes we have no choice except to respond to harshly to unsafe behavior, particularly where an individual acted recklessly. Also, many times problems we attribute to “The Culture” are easily solved through even and fair disciplinary action.

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