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How should discipline be delivered? (Viewpoint).

Supervisors have an important role to play when employees have behavioral problems. They should not just defer to HR.

As any serious leader knows, whenever you take a team member's problems and put them on someone else's shoulders, you have just given away the best chance for solving the problem and for helping the person become a productive member of the team. Yet this is exactly the approach taken by many supervisors and managers when it comes to an employee's behavioral problems, such as bullying or sexual harassment.

In many cases, it is a matter of company policy that the problem be referred elsewhere--typically to the human resources department. On its face, this seems a logical move. But as someone who has served as a director of human resources as well as in law enforcement, I have seen how this policy, though well-intentioned, sets the stage for failure. There is a better way. HR should be consulted for guidance, but direct line supervisors should remain involved as the primary parties who will implement the solution.

First, let's examine why companies tend to tell managers to "dump" their problems on HR. Senior management's view is that operational staff should advance the organization's products and services and that HR and other administrative staff should deal with employee issues.

Sounds good. But the reality is that the line supervisor is the person whom the employee deals with on a daily basis. The HR manager can wield authority, bring opponents together, achieve handshakes, and mete out discipline to varying degrees, but what happens when everyone returns to the job? It will be the supervisor's attitude about the behavior and response to it that will ultimately determine whether the problem behavior (such as bullying coworkers) ceases. If the employee does not sense that the behavior offends the supervisor, the old patterns are unlikely to change.

That is not to say that managers should avoid involving senior management or human resource experts or that they should keep their people problems and resolutions to themselves. Doing so could present even more dire consequences should circumstances escalate without notice.

Human resource professionals have an important role to play. They ensure that supervisors who report problems understand what the organization's policies are and what is appropriate both in terms of acceptable employee behavior and in terms of the disciplinary process.

They also provide oversight, monitoring for compliance with the company s fair-treatment program. As a holder of that responsibility, for example, I once had to intervene when the company's top manager chose to ignore violent behavior exhibited by one of his senior staff members.

The company had a lot invested in this senior manager, who had been wooed to the firm and marketed to the public. That investment seemed to blind the chief executive to the very real possibility of a legal disaster far greater than the replacement of a high-profile manager. Ultimately, I was permitted to initiate an investigation, which led to his resignation.

Additionally, human resource managers are able to see both sides of an issue or of a dispute. As third parties, they can be the cooler heads at the table, helping resolve problems.

But the bottom line is still the same. Whatever the response to the behavior is, and no matter whose pen authored the solution or who else needed to be in the room to mediate, witness, or support it, the employee's immediate superior must be the one to endorse, deliver, and verbalize what future expectations the company has of the employee.

If this part of the process is missing, any action taken will be seen by the employee as merely procedural. The employee will come back to the workplace with the impression that the boss reported the problem only to get it off his or her desk, and the employee will further sense that once the problem has been "handled" in this manner, life may go on as before.

Organizations that don't insist that front-line managers directly handle the solution (such as training) for their own staff relegate the process to another world that seems to the employee to be separate from the real world, the on-the-job world. This is the world of the HR clinic, where people are admitted and submitted to mind-numbing progressive disciplinary dogma filled with hollow phrases like "verbal warning," "written warning," and "coach and counsel." Records are made, and the parties return to the real world unchanged.

Over time, the problem employee's supervisor changes, the minor infractions are removed from the personnel files after a year, and the soup keeps on cooking, with the ingredients being the aggregate of all those inappropriate acts that were supposedly counseled or disciplined away. But the front-line expectations of the employee never led to changes in the employee's fundamental behavioral problem. And in the worst cases, the pot boils over, and everyone wonders how it happened.

At the heart of the problem is the tendency of most people--and therefore of most managers--to avoid confrontation. That means they would rather let someone else, like HR, handle disciplinary issues. In so doing, they are making a major mistake. They are also failing to take responsibility. They are managers in name only.

Companies should insist as a matter of policy that any reward or disciplinary action due an employee come directly from the person they report to. It isn't necessary to make line supervisors or managers act alone, but they must take the lead in the process if it is to have any lasting effect on employee behavior.

Employees are constantly looking up the ranks for justice. Supervisors who handle problems directly will grow in standing in the eyes of subordinates. Teams will become more cohesive, and peer pressure and personal pride will help to curtail disruptive behavior.

George D. Shuman is president of Shuman and Associates, a risk management consulting firm. He is a former police lieutenant, Special Assignments Branch, MPDC, Washington, D.C. He also spent many years in the private sector as a loss prevention director and as a director of human resources. He is a member of ASIS.

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Author:Shuman, George D.
Publication:Security Management
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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