Disciplinary or Corrective Action?

Jane walks in late for her shift on a Monday evening. This is the third time in the past month Jane has been tardy, and it’s starting to ruffle the feathers of the other therapists. As the department manager, should you take disciplinary or corrective action toward Jane? Do you know the difference between the two? This decision could be a tough one for managers to make, especially if they haven’t had much training on the topic. 

discussed when to use each with the following experts:
  • Glen McDaniel, a healthcare consultant, clinical lab scientist, speaker and freelance writer. His interests include mediation, leadership, change and ethics.
  • Ronald M. Katz, president, Penguin Human Resource Consulting LLC, New Rochelle, NY. He is a writer, speaker and trainer on performance management and workplace behaviors.

ADVANCE: Explain the differences between disciplinary versus corrective action.

Ronald M. Katz (RMK): Corrective action is used when the goal is to improve the person’s performance in a learned skill or competency. This could be a tactical or function-specific skill (frequently referred to as “hard” skills, an antiquated term I detest!) or a strategic skill (formerly known as a “soft” skill), such as communication, prioritizing or teamwork. These are learned skills or behaviors we want and need the employee to develop and demonstrate to be able to do his job to the organization’s expectations.

Disciplinary action is more frequently used if an employee has violated a code of conduct or created a dangerous or hazardous situation, either to herself, her coworkers or the product. Disciplinary actions are used when there is a clear case of the right or wrong way to complete a process or behave, i.e., the work must be done a certain way to insure the purity of the product.

Glen McDaniel (GM): They both have to do with something management does to address an employee’s breach or violation of policy, or expected standards of behavior. These terms are often used interchangeably, but the term chosen by a particular manager or organization is sometimes indicative of how they view dealing with employee behavior.

In the purest sense, disciplinary action is similar to what happens in the justice system where someone does something wrong and a suitable punishment is meted out.

On the other hand, corrective action concentrates on identifying the breach, then addressing it in such a way that the employee is unlikely to repeat that same breach. It sometimes has a punitive aspect, but generally it is meant to change behavior and therefore can include coaching, role playing, providing additional education, providing additional tools, even changing policies and procedures if indicated.

Most progressive organizations concentrate on corrective action because it looks at behavior versus personality, investigates whether procedures are faulty or employees are just not following established procedures. It stresses rehabilitation and overall quality over punishment.

Coaching is another term often used interchangeably, but it actually refers to a method of corrective action where the emphasis is on not just pointing out what is wrong but exploring and encouraging alternative, more productive and more acceptable behavior.

ADVANCE: Would a manager write someone up, for example, for not wearing proper clothing and protective gear, or do they have a conversation about it? How does a manager know what’s the best approach?

GM: This depends on the organizational or departmental policy as well as how many times that policy has been violated by that employee. Many organizations have an over-arching policy regarding dress, for example. This often addresses adhering to widely accepted practices in healthcare-no artificial nails, hair tied back, no open-toed shoes, clean scrubs and the like. Departments may have more stringent policies such as a certain colored scrubs, no uncovered street clothes in testing areas, no lab coats allowed in break rooms, no blue jeans allowed and so on.Corrective action illustration

First, the department should have a clear, unambiguous policy about dress and also a policy about the corrective action process. Generally, if a breach of policy is not serious enough to warrant immediate suspension or termination (violence, sexual harassment, and falsification of records are examples), then progressive discipline is used.

That means a first breach might be a discussion which is documented informally, if at all. It might make its way into the departmental file or not. However, this does not usually make it to the employee’s “permanent record” in human resources. If the same or a related breach occurs again, then a verbal warning is given, and this time it is documented. This is what most employees call a “write up” because it is always in writing and always goes into the employee’s file, even though it is the most minor breach.

Some organizations call the first step an oral discussion and the second step a verbal warning. Some organizations skip the casual discussion and automatically start with a verbal, but it is often left up to the manager’s discretion whether to use that first more casual step at all.

Not wearing protective gear can be harmful to the employee and his colleagues, so it should never be ignored, but some discretion is involved as to how it is addressed if it is a first violation.

ADVANCE: Do minor infractions against policy warrant disciplinary action?

RMK: Yes. Consistency is important in corrective or disciplinary actions. You don’t know if the employee is “testing” the manager. Further, if the situation worsens and leads to any kind of litigation, if the organization made exceptions for minor infractions, it will be harder to justify stepping up for larger misdeeds. That being said, remember to “let the punishment fit the crime.” Parking in a spot reserved for visitors or customers is not the same as bringing a weapon to the worksite, though both are against policy.

GM: If the actual infraction is not defined in policy or is open to interpretation, then it depends on who is defining “minor.” By nature, a minor infraction would fall into the progressive discipline pipeline: an oral discussion, verbal warning, first written warning, and so on up the line.

Not every single violation can be stated explicitly in policy. There are also behavioral expectations like “creating disharmony in the workplace” that are open to interpretation. A manager’s best bet is to treat all employees equitably to minimize charges of discrimination or favoritism. If something is serious enough to give pause and to be discussed with the employee, it is always better to memorialize it in writing even if the record is not considered a formal corrective action. This creates a record-a paper trail-that can be invaluable if more serious action is required subsequently, or if there is a claim of not treating employees fairly.

Amanda Koehler (akoehler@advanceweb.com) is on staff at ADVANCE.

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