Business Times

Office discipline: Right People, Wrong Attitude

Issues in the workplace
By Rozaine Cooray

Business Psychologist
We have the best in our teams. They are knowledgeable, skilled, experienced and well-trained on the job. However, despite all these facilitating factors, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the dwindling productivity on the whole. Having screened them for person-job fit and motivation, some may find the cause rooted in something much more fundamental in any form of human behaviour: discipline.
Be it lack of punctuality, answering calls at meetings, chatting with friends over the phone during office hours or checking personal emails and Facebook every half hour, workplace discipline is an escalating problem for many managers. More and more managers complain about a young work force that has no sense of respect to the system, organization’s rules and unspoken guidelines based on common sense.

Discipline and self control are the ground rules of the game and a deficit of these creates a wrong attitude towards work. We probably all know that any form of expertise is futile without the right mind-set to channel it to the right place and right time. Workplace discipline is for improving performance, dealing with unhelpful attitudes and to correct damaging behaviour. It is also for turning performance around before termination or suspension of jobs. However, it has to be noted here; workplace discipline is not punishment.

Just so that we could put things in perspective: if we are team leaders or managers struggling to get our teams to optimally perform on a daily basis, we would probably know how important the following points are, in disciplining our direct reports.

Our approach should be to understand the cause of the behaviour. It is vital to give the employee the opportunity to explain why he/she is, for instance: always on the phone. If the excuse is based on unjustifiable reasons, then it is time to take charge.

It is important to be specific. We minimize defensive behaviour by making it clear to our employees what exactly we are disciplining about. Generic statements like ‘you need to improve your attitude’ can only add ambiguity. Relating the unruly behaviour to specific standards such as ‘you have been seen on the phone laughing and chatting away during office hours, and this is not acceptable’, is imperative.
Furthermore, putting the incident into context would add more clarity to our inquiry. This could be done by explaining to the employee how their behaviour disrupts the work flow and how it impacts on others’ quality and timely output. Furthermore, we could explain how this projects a bad image of the department or the team to the outsiders.

Specifying the change that we expect from the respective employees is essential: ‘I would like you to take your personal calls during the breaks and you have to limit using the office phone for such long calls’. In being specific about this expectation, we tell the employee that it is not a personal attack but something that we would ask anybody else to carry out too.

It is also necessary to explain the consequences of not adhering to the code of conduct. Since this is verbal warning, the employee should be informed of what other measures we would take if the behaviour is not to change; ‘if this continues, I have to request a disciplinary inquiry’. This ensures the repercussions of not changing and in turn makes him/her more responsible. If the employee does continue to display the wrong behaviour, we need to take action as mentioned. On top of being consistent in what we say and what we do, this will also act as a warning for others too.

Being consistent also applies when we have to discipline employees who may also be our friends. It is good to remember, that in the work environment our priority is to manage our teams. It will definitely not look good on us if we overlook behaviour in one person and not the other. Being impersonal and informing that it is the behaviour that is problematic and not him/her as a person, will help us to define our boundaries amongst friends at work.

Providing support and finishing on a positive note are crucial- ‘having said that, I want to avoid going down the disciplinary route; your team needs you and you play an important role’. The ending should promise a win-win situation to the employee and the company.

Finally, what if the problem is chronic and we realize our continuous attempt to rectify the difficult employee is similar to pouring water on a duck’s back? The harsh truth is that the company or team is better off without them. Problems vary in their severity and managers are called to make some hard decisions depending on the circumstances.

Discipline is as elementary as ABC. It forms the foundation of a person’s character.
Discipline subsequently suggests ‘respect’ for oneself and others, and it is not rocket science that without this respect, there will be no progress in any form of system: family, organization or wider society as a whole. (This columnist could be reached at

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