HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development, Talent

What Is Positive Discipline?

Facing the prospect of disciplining an employee, many managers would rather … not. Having difficult conversations like this is one of the more frustrating and cumbersome (and, let’s face it, sometimes awkward) tasks a manager faces. And for HR managers, who may be tasked with employee discipline (directly or by assisting) or with training managers on how to handle employee issues, the task is no walk in the park.

The point of administering any type of discipline in a workplace setting is to change negative behaviors into positive ones. If an employee routinely comes in late, for example, the goal of any employer action is to get the employee to be at work on time. The goal should not be to punish, per se, but instead to change behavior.

Many organizations use some version of progressive disciplinary actions in which the actions escalate if the behavior does not improve. With the example of the chronically late employee above, a progressive discipline policy may begin with a verbal warning given to the employee that future tardiness will not be acceptable. If the lateness continues, it may progress (as the name implies) to a written warning, a suspension, and even termination. Some or all of the intermediate steps could be skipped for more serious issues. This type of disciplinary policy is quite common, both in the workplace and other settings.

Some employers are seeking alternatives to this method, which is where positive discipline could come in.

What Is Positive Discipline?

Positive discipline is a method in which the positive aspects about the employee’s actions (rather than the negative behaviors) are highlighted. It seeks to explain to the employee what positive actions the employer is looking for, opting to focus on the wanted behaviors and outcomes instead of the problems. The idea is to provide motivation for employees to improve. In other words, it’s the “carrot” instead of the “stick.”

When utilizing positive discipline, a manager would meet with the employee and discuss their performance, being sure to note areas where the employee is meeting and exceeding expectations. The problem areas are discussed, as well, as part of the larger conversation. The manager needs to be sure the employee leaves the discussion understanding the problem and understanding the effect it has (and will continue to have if it is not addressed). There should be an action plan—both sides should agree on what needs to happen next. The positive aspects are included in the larger conversation as a way to help the employee be receptive to the negative feedback. That said, be careful not to bury the problem—it should still be discussed fully and should not be minimized to the point that the employee does not understand the importance of the issue.

The idea behind positive discipline is that it reframes the entire discussion to one in which the employee and employer are working together to achieve their goals—rather than one in which an employee is being punished for their actions. This can have the effect of improving employee morale, even in the face of needing to improve performance. It takes away some of the more negative connotations associated with other disciplinary policies. When executed well, it motivates employees to perform better because they feel trusted and feel as though they’re contributing to the larger goals—rather than performing better out of fear of reprisal.

If your workplace already utilizes a progressive discipline approach, the two methodologies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The positive disciplinary approach can be viewed as the “how” in terms of how any disciplinary actions are administered. It stands to reason that if the initial positive disciplinary meeting (performance discussion) does not motivate the employee to change his or her behavior, it would be logical to progress to taking other actions. But with a positive disciplinary approach, the conversations are different, and the approach is different. The positive approach would move toward having more discussions that act as reminders and reinforcements of desired behaviors rather than evolving to written reprimands. The entire terminology and tone is different, but the general idea (progressively increasing action as needed) stays the same.