International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 2

By Jay M. Shafritz | Go to book overview

Progressive Discipline

Given this (probably valid) criticism, it is especially ironic to note that public sector disciplinary procedures are often superior to those employed in the private sector. Perhaps because of the difficulties that they have encountered, public agencies both in the United States and abroad have developed relatively sophisticated systems of employee discipline. The prevalent approach in most public personnel systems is termed "progressive discipline." Research indicates that such procedures are present in about 80 percent of all public jurisdictions in the United States, and in most public bureaucracies of the industrialized world. Third World nations, in contrast, rarely operate anything more than the most rudimentary and informal schemes of worker discipline.

The typical progressive discipline procedure consists of an extensive list of punishable offenses, including tardiness, absenteeism, insubordination, rule violations, drug or alcohol impairment, misuse of equipment, and the like. A specific punishment is prescribed for each offense, as well as for any recurrences of the original infraction. Thus, for example, an employee who falls asleep on the job may receive a written reprimand for the first offense, a five-day suspension for the second offense, and termination for any subsequent violation. Thus, the term "progressive" connotes that fact that an ascending hierarchy of penalties exists, depending upon the seriousness of the offense and the number of occurrences.

To moderate the procedure's punitive thrust, modern personnel offices emphasize the developmental side of the disciplinary mechanism. This is accomplished through a multiphased process designed to involve the worker in corrective action and to emphasize improvement of future performance rather than punishment of past conduct. Upon identifying a work deficiency, the supervisor's first obligation is to confront the employee and discuss the problem openly. Then, the manager and worker set improvement goals and agree upon an action plan. Elements of this plan include a specific (preferably quantifiable) statement of the expected improvement in performance, designation of a timeframe in which the improvement should take place, and the creation of a written record on which to build any further action should the poor performance continue. Remedial steps, such as specialized training or reassignment to different duties, may also be specified at this stage. The manager's responsibility is then to monitor performance and, if necessary, implement an appropriate sanction if the performance problem continues. With some variation among jurisdictions, most progressive discipline procedures contain the following forms of discipline in ascending order of severity: verbal warning, formal (written) reprimand, suspension with pay, suspension without pay, reduction of pay within the same job class, demotion to a lower classification, and dismissal.

In summary, progressive discipline procedures provide a framework in which the rights and obligation of both management and labor can be nurtured. If followed carefully, they permit supervisors to correct dysfunctional behavior without invading the rights of their subordinates. By specifying the punishment that is appropriate for each offense, consistency and impartiality are (theoretically) ensured. Similarly, the procedures' emphasis on employee counseling and correction conforms with modern attitudes concerning the development -- rather than the punishment -- of workers. Problem employees are given prior notice of inadequate performance, as well as one or more opportunities to correct their deficiencies.

Although progressive discipline procedures currently represent the state of the art in public personnel management, they are by no means universally advocated. Detractors complain, for example, that this form of discipline "proceeds from the premise that the worse and worse an employer treats an employee in the name of discipline, the better and better the employee will become" ( Redeker, 1985, p. 7). A few strident proponents of the industrial humanism tradition maintain that corrective disciplinary systems are obsolete, and that public organizations ought to refine nonpunitive means of dealing with problem employees. The vast majority of authorities, however, embrace the fundamental assumptions of progressive discipline. There is nothing wrong with these procedures, provided that they are faithfully followed. By this reasoning, if public organizations are not doing an adequate job of disciplining workers, the blame may lie more with government's supervisors than with its personnel procedures.



Brake, Charles, 1982. "Limiting the Right to Terminate at Will -- Have the Courts Forgotten the Employer?" Vanderbilt Law Review, vol. 35:201-234.

Bryant, Alan, 1984, "Replacing Punitive Discipline with a Positive Approach". Personnel Administrator, vol. 29 (February) 79-87.

Daley, Dennis, 1993, "Formal Disciplinary Procedures and Conflict Resolution Remedies", Public Personnel Management, vol. 22 (Spring) 153-166.

Deitsch, Clarence and David Dilts, 1990. The Arbitration of Rights Disputes in the Public Sector. New York: Quorum Books.

Hays, Steven W., 1995, "Employee Discipline and Removal: Coping with Job Security." In Steven Hays and Richard Kearney , Public Personnel Administration: Problems and Prospects. eds., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 145-161.

O'Reilly, Charles and Barton Weitz, 1980, "Managing Marginal Employees: The Use of Warnings and Dismissals". Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 25 (September) 467-484.

Redeker, James, 1985, "Discipline, Part 2: The Nonpunitive Approach Works by Design". Personnel, vol. 62 (November) 7-14.


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