Don't Have Rules & Policies Unless You Are Prepared to Discipline Those Who Break Them

Karina Sterman Esq.
August 13, 2013 — 1,113 views  

In the immortal words of Stephen Covey, the genius who convinced us to micro-organize our lives into fifteen minute increments, “Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.” While he likely was referring to the austerity of self-discipline, the same principle applies to discipline of employees.

In any organization that propounds rules and policies, there will be those who break them, intentionally or not. Without disciplining those who do so, the organization is tacitly acknowledging that those, and likely other, rules and policies do not really matter. Worse, it is acknowledging that they don’t matter for some people and may matter for others. The reverse, inappropriate discipline in response to a rule or policy violation is equally problematic and will likely result in depleted morale, disengagement, disloyalty and possibly claims of unlawful discrimination and disparate treatment.

So, how does an effective manager discipline effectively? Use the card below. Well, actually, the CARD method below.


Develop Guidelines And Adhere To Them.
Written guidelines in the form of policy manuals will provide employees with notice that certain misconduct/performance problems may/will result in termination. These guidelines will help advert claims that the treatment was unfair or administered in an arbitrary manner. It is imperative, however, that the employer adheres to the written policies. For this reason the policies should be drafted in a manner that will provide the employer with flexibility to deal with individual situations and at the same time help insure consistent treatment of similar cases.


Similar Offenses Should Be Treated Alike.
In order to avoid charges of arbitrary or discriminatory conduct, employers should strive to treat similar problems uniformly. If an employer terminates an employee for an infraction for which others were not terminated, that employee may have a valid claim for improper discrimination or retaliation, especially if the individual is a member of a protected group.


The Action Should Be Reasonable.
The employer should consider, for example, whether it is fair to impose termination as a disciplinary measure based upon the misconduct or performance problem of the employee.

Therefore, if there is proof that an employee was misusing confidential information or stealing trade secrets, immediate termination is certainly warranted. On the other hand, if the employee is misusing his/her phone privileges, a series of warning would be the appropriate course to follow before terminating the employee. If a rule violation is the first of its kind that the company has had to deal with, consider not only the reasonableness of the disciplinary action with respect to the employee involved, but also of the precedent such action will set in future similar offenses that should be treated alike.


Document All Disciplinary Actions, Up to the Termination
The importance of properly documenting personnel problems and disciplinary action cannot be overemphasized, particularly when a pattern of conduct is what led to the termination. Nonetheless, managers are often reluctant to properly document disciplinary actions, thinking that placing such documentation in the employee’s personnel file may be detrimental to the employee or the manager’s relationship with the employee. Managers, however, should be aware that if the employee later challenges greater discipline or termination, either internally or by taking legal action, proper documentation is often the most crucial evidence an employer can present in its defense to prove that the termination was not unexpected, random or based on an improper motive.

Karina Sterman Esq.

Ervin Cohen & Jessup LLP

Karina Sterman has substantial expertise defending employers in discrimination, wrongful termination, and wage and hour litigation. She is a published author, frequent speaker, and she advises her clients with smart, business-savvy strategies.