Effective Employee Discipline: A Case of the Internal Revenue Service

By Guffey, Cynthia J.; Helms, Marilyn M. | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Effective Employee Discipline: A Case of the Internal Revenue Service


Guffey, Cynthia J., Helms, Marilyn M., Public Personnel Management


The role of employee discipline from a management, employee, and union perspective is examined using the Internal Revenue Service as a case study example. The concept of discipline is defined and contrasted with punishment. Also, two discipline models -- progressive discipline and positive discipline -- are compared and contrasted. A hybrid discipline model used at the Internal Revenue Service is discussed; the roles and responsibilities of management, the union, and the employee in the discipline process are included also. In particular, the roles of IRS managers and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) are outlined. Results from the recently released IRS/NTEU National Equal Employment Opportunity Task Force Report are highlighted. Several discipline pitfalls are outlined including: cultural diversity issues, tolerance of poor performers, and lack of managerial training. To make the disciplinary process fairer and less stressful for managers and all employees, recommendations from the IRS/NTEU report are presented.

Discipline is an inevitable part of a manager's responsibilities. W. Edwards Deming, the founder of quality management, in Out of the Crisis, wrote that, "People can face almost any problem except the problems of people.... Faced with problems with people, management...will go into a state of paralysis."[1] "Coping with disciplinary problems is one of the most difficult and stressful, yet essential parts of any supervisor's job."[2] The discipline process involves more than just managerial instinct or intuition to resolve workplace performance problems. Most organizations have objectives or union agreements in place to protect employees' rights from arbitrary dismissal and lack of feedback. Managers must provide fair, factual, and timely disciplinary feedback. These authors examine the disciplinary procedures used by a federal government agency, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and its union, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). The results of the 1994 IRS/NTEU Equal Opportunity Task Force Report that focuses on the higher discipline rates for minorities with the IRS are discussed, and recommendations from the study and literature are given.

Discipline Defined

Although the term "discipline" may seem clear, Paul J. Champagne and R. Bruce McAfee provide the first specific definition for discipline in their book, Motivating Strategies for Performance and Productivity.[3] Often viewed synonymously with punishment, discipline is contrasted to punishment by these authors. Punishment is defined as an "undesirable event that follows an instance of unacceptable behavior and is intended to decrease the frequency of that behavior."[4] Discipline has three distinct meanings:

* punishment for a violation of a work rule or direct order;

* training that molds and strengthens the employee's behavior;

* and "control gained by enforced obedience."[5]

From these three definitions, one can see that discipline not only has a corrective component but also an educational one.

According to the Internal Revenue Service Manual, discipline is defined as an "oral admonishment confirmed in writing, a written reprimand, or a suspension of 14 calendar days or less."[6] Adverse action is defined as "a removal; a suspension for more than 14 calendar days; a reduction in grade; a reduction in pay; and a furlough of 30 calendar days or less of a full-time employee."[7] Clearly this definition focuses more on the enforcement or punishment side of discipline.

Discipline Models

Two discipline models -- progressive discipline or positive discipline -- are followed by most large organizations. Developed in the 1930s, progressive discipline follows a four-step progression: an oral warning, a written warning, suspension, and dismissal. The second model -- positive discipline -- is a participatory approach that can be used to encourage the employee to recognize his or her deficiencies and recommit to the goals and mission of the organization. …

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