The Trouble With Discipline: Part II
"Our system was failing to meet its most basic responsibility: the development of productive and well-disciplined individuals." Dick Grote, Discipline Without Punishment
In the early 1970s, a troublesome mystery befuddled the executives of Frito-Lay. Abruptly one day, complaint letters from outraged customers began arriving at the company's headquarters. Angry writers reported the same upsetting experience: each had been shocked to discover, on a Frito-Lay potato chip, an obscene message written in felt-tip pen.
Having traced the source of the offensive chips to a particular plant, management dispatched training and development manager Dick Grote to the facility with instructions to track down the culprit responsible for the vulgar messages. What Grote found instead was a workplace culture that bred disobedience.
Grote learned that plant managers had fired fifty-eight of the factory's 210 employees for disciplinary reasons in the prior nine months. Supervisors were misusing progressive discipline -- verbal and written warnings, unpaid suspensions, and terminations -- as a way to rid the plant of unwanted workers. The excessive firings resulted in dismal morale and led disgruntled employees to sabotage the company's products.
The sheer volume of disciplinary actions at the plant allowed Grote to spot what is less obvious in most organizations; that is, that traditional progressive-discipline methods are highly ineffective.
In his book, Discipline Without Punishment, Grote writes, "The problem wasn't the way we were administering the system. The problem was the system itself." Like discipline systems at most companies, Frito-Lay's offered employees no way to redeem themselves. Says Grote, "Virtually every employee who received a verbal warning received a written warning; almost everyone who reached the point of a disciplinary suspension was fired not long after." So he decided to change the system.
While keeping the progressive characteristic of the system, Grote eliminated punishment and replaced it with personal responsibility and decision-making. Warnings and reprimands became reminders -- coaching sessions in which employees are asked to take responsibility for their actions and commit to changing their undesirable behaviors. Unpaid suspensions became paid leaves during which employees can reflect on the seriousness of the problem -- without the resentment and financial hardships caused by withholding pay.
Over the next two years, the number of terminations resulting from disciplinary actions at the plant fell from 58 to two. Thousands of organizations have since followed Frito-Lay's approach with staggering results. In addition to firing fewer employees, these companies are also experiencing lower voluntary turnover, reductions in sick-leave usage, and drops in worker grievances.
"The basic premise of the traditional discipline system is that crime must be followed by punishment," writes Grote. With that in mind, too many organizations treat all of their employees like criminals.
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