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The Employee Discipline Paradox: Confronting Your Like-Hate Relationships
Written by Steve Albrecht
In his great novel of the Civil War, “The Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara wrote from the perspective of the Union and Confederate generals as they prepared for the battle of Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee said, “Soldiering has one great trap. To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good offi cer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. That is a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it.”
Perhaps the law enforcement profession is an exception. Police supervisors regularly send their uniformed charges into harm’s way, knowing they may never see them alive again. Cop work, like soldiering, can go wrong quickly and the “fog of war” is common for both.
So for General Lee, loving the army but hating to send his men to die is a paradox, which has its parallels with supervision and the use of discipline. We may like an employee but hate his behavior or performance problems. This can lead to statements, said inwardly or to fellow bosses, along the lines of, “He’s a good cop, when he bothers to go to a radio call,” or “He’s great with citizens, until they start arguing, and then it’s a shouting match.”
Another possibility exists, where the supervisor cannot stand to be in the same room as the employee and yet, must confront the employee regarding his performance or behavior problems. This leads to “telepathic discipline,” where we hope that by thinking hard about the employee’s issues he will be able to read our minds as we walk by and suddenly discover what we want him to do differently.
Some supervisors use a version of this by speaking to a gathering of employees in this generic way: “One of you here has a tardiness problem and you know who you are. You had better start getting to work on time or there are going to be problems.” Most employees look knowingly around the room at the assumed culprit and nod, or the culprit may say to themselves, “My boss is certainly not referring to me,” even if they are the one who shows up late most often.
Even the most experienced, skilled supervisors dislike the discipline paradox: “I don’t want to have to sit and meet with the employee, mostly because he gets on my last nerve. I just know there is going to be arguing, denials or the silent treatment for a week afterward. Why can’t my problem people just square themselves away without me having to lecture them?”
The short answer is, “They won’t.” It’s up to you to meet with your most challenging employees. You already know you must meet with the employee and provide more goals, more specific requests for positive changes and more accountability.
All good actors use cue cards. Prepare for every meeting with researched examples (dates, times, people, places, events) that you can use to initiate the conversation. It’s not about labels, don’t say, “You’re a horrible driver,” or “You’ve got a lousy attitude with your co-workers,”). It’s about pointing out specifi c behaviors, such as, “Based on your accident, you will need to take a refresher EVOC course,” or “You cannot continue to make sarcastic comments or tell clearly offensive jokes during the pre-shift briefings.”
There are three benefi ts to fi ghting the discipline paradox by meeting with a diffi cult employee more than you do now: you can make your desire for change very clear, every time; you can honestly say that you gave the employee every opportunity to discuss the issues and make changes; the employee will certainly get tired of talking to you about the same things, so he can either choose to change or watch as the meetings escalate into ones with more consequences.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include “Contact & Cover,” “Streetwork,” “Surviving Street Patrol,” and “Tactical Perfection for Street Cops.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Jul 2011
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