Coaching versus Discipline

Posted on June 26, 2019 in Compliance

Balancing coaching and discipline is a challenge in the workplace. I thought about this recently during a trip to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and week-long summer baseball tournaments. My son played on his team (the Oilers) of twelve boys age 12 to 13 in a tournament of 104 teams from across the U.S. Standing, and often pacing, watching boys play baseball, I was consistently impressed by how the coaches managed the team of vastly different personalities, skillsets, and tendencies to follow rules. The experience caused me to reflect on how employers should distinguish between coaching employees to improve and disciplinary action to correct misdeeds.

Distinction One: Purpose Coaching teaches improvement.

Coaching is mentoring. We coach employees on how to get something done best; manners of efficiency; how best to work through a task; when to ask for help. Coaching opportunities focus on skill development and increasing productivity. Coaching works best when an employee’s positive intentions would be graded as a low B with the thought that mentoring achieves the desired solid A. In contrast, discipline addresses a violation of a policy typically that results in harm to the Company or others. Prime examples include insubordination, bad attitude, and workplace confrontation. None of these situations are resolved by mentoring. Rather, they concern violation of rules that should have been mastered sometime during puberty… we should hope.

Distinction Two: Method of Delivery

How we communicate coaching versus discipline distinguishes our meaning. Discipline must be in writing. Level one discipline, although sometime couched as “verbal warning”, should be and most often is reduced to writing. As we all know, a reasonable person would assume that if the behavior warranted discipline the employer would utilize its recognized disciplinary forms. On that note, email cannot be used for disciplinary action. If the Company has a discipline form, which all do, than it should be used when discipline is being enforced. Coaching typically comes in the form of one-on-one conversation. The boss and employee discuss how a project could have been performed best. Coaching should, however, be reflected in annual performance reviews as a form of encouraging continued improvement and success.

Distinction Three: Tone of the Message

Disciplinary action must be taken serious and be delivered with a firm message. Little comes across worse to a jury than testimony from a supervisor that he handed an employee disciplinary action and told him not to worry about it. Imagine a sexual harassment case in which the reprimanded employee testifies my boss told me this was a “slap on the hand.” Counseling comes with a different tone of voice. The message is a sincere desire to tutor and train so that employees succeed. The meeting should be a positive experience without any feeling of rejection or dejection.

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