Organizations benefit from having clear and concise ways to address common issues like tardiness, absenteeism, theft, substance abuse, violence, harassment, and other violations of company standards. Discipline is often used to accomplish this. In a document published by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), discipline is described as a way to "address conduct issues such as poor work performance or misconduct to encourage workers to become more productive workers and to adapt their behavior to company standards and expectations." Also, if discipline is applied consistently and documented accordingly, this can help defend organizations against grievances, EEOC charges, OSHA whistleblower allegations, and wrongful termination lawsuits. That's all good. And it might seem intuitively obvious to include unsafe acts as behaviors worthy of discipline. But, after carefully analyzing numerous safety-related disciplinary events in light of current research about human performance, it's become increasingly apparent that using discipline as a reaction to safety infractions often does more harm than good.

The rationale for disciplining workers for safety infractions often follows this thought process:

  1. the worker broke a safety rule or did something unsafe,

  2. the worker was aware of the safety rule,

  3. the worker's actions had, or could have had, serious consequences, and

  4. other workers have been disciplined for similar infractions.

This approach isn't much different than disciplining for other fundamental workplace rules. But before rushing to judgment, there are some critical issues that must be understood in order to use discipline effectively in a positive safety culture.

Issue # 1: Discipline Is Punitive

Despite assurances from some well-meaning Human Resource professionals that the purpose of discipline is not to punish or embarrass workers, traditional discipline is still punitive in nature. Common forms of discipline, typically doled out in a progressive fashion, include counseling, written warnings, suspensions, and termination. Depending on the circumstances, discipline may also include a demotion or job transfer. Do any of these consequences sound positive to you?

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