Seeking More Constructive Approaches to Workplace Discipline



"While alternative discipline requires more thoughtful decision-making and thus poses a greater challenge for managers and agencies than traditional discipline, the results can be worth the time and effort," the report says.

Although written for the federal workplace, the suggestions in "Alternative Discipline: Creative Solutions for Agencies to Effectively Address Employee Misconduct" could apply to any workplace. Managers in the private and nonprofit sectors, as well as those in local and state governments, face similar misconduct issues.

Union leaders like the idea of alternative disciplinary measures but want to make sure the suggestions are more than putting "diamonds over mud," in the words of Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees.

The mud, he explained, is a system that poorly trains managers in disciplinary practices. He said a disciplinary action has been overturned or reduced in more than 70 percent of the 250-plus cases his staff has challenged since 2005, because mangers inadequately investigate accusations or improperly write up charges or impose abusive penalties.

Marcia Stevens, a lawyer at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, won her case, but not before it left her deeply in debt and emotionally drained. She was fired after being accused of conflict of interest. An arbitrator reinstated her and awarded her back pay last year. But the experience remains so sensitive that she chokes up when thinking about its impact on her children.

She favors a disciplinary system that provides greater fairness for employees.

"It was horrifying," she said of her experience with the disciplinary process. "There was nothing fair about it."

One problem with alternative discipline is how to define it. Basically, the report defines alternative discipline by saying it's anything that's not traditional discipline.

Fortunately, the report goes beyond that and provides some helpful illustrations of alternative discipline. For example, instead of suspending an offending worker, the employee could donate an equal amount of time for others to use as sick leave, perform an equal amount of time in community service or work less desirable duty shifts.

Other measures include having the employee research an issue related to the misconduct then provide a briefing to colleagues, or publicly apologize to those affected by the behavior. For actions such as misuse of agency credit cards or shouting at co-workers or being drunk on duty, the employee could go to debt management classes, anger management counseling or substance abuse programs.

Certainly, alternative measures are not always appropriate. Sometimes the bad deed is so serious that suspension without pay makes sense. The report notes that "alternative discipline works best when agencies consider the character and personality of the individual."

When it is appropriate, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union says, two steps should be taken to make alternative measures more useful. One would give local managers, instead of higher-ups at a distance from the situation, greater authority to decide punishments. The other would not permit the traditional discipline that might have been originally proposed by the agency to be part of the employee's record. "This is a powerful disincentive for employees to enter into an alternative discipline agreement, particularly if the employees don't see the underlying incident in the same light as the agency," Kelley said.

The bottom line is a disciplinary system that is equitable, just and successful in changing behavior.

"Under the correct circumstances," Neil A. G. McPhie, the board's chairman, wrote in a letter accompanying the report, "alternative discipline may be the most effective method for addressing such misconduct."


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