Progressive Discipline the Right Way

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Date: Winter 2019
From: Reference & User Services Quarterly(Vol. 59, Issue 2)
Publisher: American Library Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,200 words
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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Personnel actions are among managers' least favorite job duties. If you talk to librarians, you will find few who enjoy the stress, tension, and confrontation engendered by corrective actions that can become as much about interpersonal conflict as the job itself. Many managers also fear failing--that the corrective action will not succeed in correcting the issue, or worse, that the employee will somehow twist the action and win, removing the supervisor's authority and control of the situation. In some instances, when the employee requiring discipline is popular among co-workers, managers dread being labeled as cruel, tarnishing the positive relationships they have with other employees, or inciting fear among them.

However, it is unfair to other employees if a manager does not discipline a member of the staff or allows a toxic situation to continue. If a manager fails to act in time, the fallout can have far-reaching effects: lower productivity and higher risk of burnout among the nontoxic employees. Employee loss can increase by as much as 54 percent, a real financial burden considering the cost of replacing good employees. (1)


In many libraries, each personnel type may be governed by many different personnel policies. For example, in my academic library, the hourly full- and part-time staff members are unionized and have a contract that outlines specific employee policies, the faculty are governed by their own set of policies, and administrative employees are at will. In addition, the university has an employee handbook and associated policies that must be adhered to. One can't forget about state and federal labor laws.

Beyond a library's official guidelines for its staff, it is not uncommon to find several more unwritten or unofficial policies in effect. A common unofficial policy allows hourly staff to accrue time off by reducing the time normally taken for breaks. If you wish to address this practice in a personnel action, you will need to find out if your supervisor or HR department supports the policy, if they have just looked the other way, or if they were unaware of it (this last one happens more than you might think). Depending on the response, these unofficial policies can carry as much weight as an official one. Be sure to read and fully understand the policies and the relationships among them. Disciplining an employee for an issue that is otherwise permissible by your organization is a quick way to lose credibility among your staff.

Every organization has a method by which corrective actions are administered. The most prevalent method is progressive discipline. Performance improvement plans and positive discipline are other widely used methods. In my experience, these approaches tend to be mixed, and most common performance improvement plans are overlaid onto the progressive discipline process. In this way, managers try to make corrective actions positive, encouraging the employees to improve, rather than threaten their sense of job security. Other managers are afraid that a more emotionally laden process exposes them to greater legal risk and stick...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A619403184