Category Archives: Sue Bingham

“Disciplining” Adults is Just Wrong

By Sue Bingham

Sue BinghamIt’s a great irony that the discipline policy preferred by most companies is called “progressive”. Since the word progressive means “making favorable progress or change” nothing could be further from the truth.

The progressive discipline policy is about punishment not improvement.Punishment expects employee performance to improve by treating the employee progressively worse. Click To Tweet

This senseless and de-humanizing process was created to protect companies from adverse legal rulings, and mostly at the advice of legal counsel. The irony is that a claim or charge can be adjudicated in favor of the employee—not because of what the terminated employee has or hasn’t done— but because the company failed to follow the myriad details outlined in its own policies.

Most managers denounce their company’s progressive discipline policy as lengthy, over-engineered and ineffective. For the bad apple who shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, this process takes far too long. And the small minority of abusers use the policy like a playbook, and keep ahead of the game by changing the performance issue that is violated. They also know the time required for the last warning to be removed— so they can do it again. Here’s how it works…

Progressive Discipline Policies

Typically, progressive discipline policies are comprised of steps, with each step involving an employee and his/her manager and eventually witnesses. In each step, the communication is routinely one-way and parent-child, ending with the threat: “Failure to improve will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination”.

  • Step One is a verbal warning. That’s an interesting term—verbal warning—because it’s often documented. And the word “warning” is correct because the discussion ends with a threat. The angry employee then leaves (often after being asked to sign the written verbal warning).
  • Step Two is just like step one but is now called a written warning. Again it ends with a threat (in a more serious tone) and the angry, dispirited or apathetic employee again leaves after being asked to sign the warning.
  • Step Three varies among companies. It may be a second written warning or an unpaid suspension from work. The employee is sent home (which seems much like sending a child to his room), and the employee and his family are being punished because the company is withholding pay.
  • Some companies even have a Step Four—a third and FINAL written warning. This is usually a tense and negative interaction between the manager and employee. It exists to create a paper trail that will hold up in an unemployment claim or court of law once the employee is terminated (at this stage the decision has already been made to fire the employee).

Punishment is not instructive. It cannot teach a new behavior or solve a problem. The improvement or desired behavior will never be permanently learned unless an employee and his supervisor work together to solve the problem.

In most traditional companies, equipment is treated better than employees. Using a progressive disciplinary approach is like banging on a machine to make it run better.

A Better Way

Assume that the vast majority of employees are good people who want the company to succeed. They are adults who own homes, raise children and serve in their communities. If a problem develops and is brought to their attention, their desire is to solve it.

A performance coaching approach is based on this assumption. If a problem arises, those involved will want to solve it. This coaching meeting has an agenda the manager partially prepares in advance to be clear and concise about the problem. When prepared, the manager can state the issue, usually in under fifteen seconds, and then ask, “What’s going on?” This turns the problem-solving conversation immediately over to the employee to discover the cause of the performance issue.

This is not a “step” process. This is an adult conversation that ends depending on how the employee responds.

  • Cooperative: If the employee is cooperative (most are), he accepts responsibility and offers an action or commitment to address the cause—problem solved! The action or solution is not provided by the manager. The manager facilitates the employee’s plan.
  • Uncooperative: The employee may be uncooperative, meaning he isn’t forthcoming regarding the cause, blames others or simply avoids responding as an adult to the manager’s questions. When this happens, the manager reflects what she’s seeing and hearing. Most people become cooperative at this point. If not, the manager will ask the employee to go home for the rest of the day. Unlike a suspension, this time off is paid because the employee’s job that day is to decide about his employment. Is this a job he wants? Can he meet expectations? If so, he is expected to return with a sincere commitment statement or plan of action. If the employee determines the job is not for him, the company processes his resignation. (A surprising number of people make the decision to change).
  • Disrespectful: Occasionally an employee can go beyond uncooperative and become downright disrespectful. There is no room for disrespectful behavior in this process. The manager reflects what she’s seeing or hearing, and if the employee continues to be disrespectful, the manager ends the meeting. The employee is sent home and informed that the manager will call him in the morning to let him know if he still has a job.

In all three instances, the problem is solved—usually with less than two conversations.

This process does have documentation. When a manager lacks confidence that the improvement will be made, a letter is sent to the employee that documents both sides of the conversation including the employee’s plan of action . It is kept in a company file. When the employee’s response results in resignation or termination, a report detailing the conversation(s) is submitted.

With this approach, the legal process is now focused on the employee’s response and subsequent actions versus whether the detailed progressive discipline steps were followed by the company.

As competition for good people becomes more intense, companies that treat their employees with respect, and as adults, gain the advantage. Managers are then free to use the leadership, judgment and communication skills for which they’re paid.

Sue Bingham is the founder of the HPWP Group, a master coach, speaker, and author of the book, Creating The High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment. At the forefront of the positive business movement, Sue supports leaders as they achieve their vision of success, and designs common-sense systems that make people and organizations more effective. For more information about Sue Bingham, please visit:

Eight Elements That Comprise a High Performance Enterprise

By Sue Bingham

Wake Up

Sue BinghamIt’s no secret that the workforce and the nature of work itself are rapidly changing. Many organizations, particularly large ones, are like an ocean liner that can’t turn on a dime. If an organization is not actively promoting and integrating the following eight elements, that organization is already behind and will experience negative impacts as the workforce shrinks and traditional management practices continue.

The root cause is that traditional management practices and H.R. policies have been created to catch the “bad apple”.  Let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of employees are good people—we might even say 95% fall in this category.  That leaves the small minority of five-percenters or bad apples.  Often this group occupies a much larger percentage of managements’ time and attention.  To try to rid the organization of these people, penalizing and insulting policies are created that often catch good people in their net. When treated the same as a five-percenter, ninety-five percenters feel embarrassed and de-valued.  What’s worse, they create a bureaucratic system that makes it nearly impossible to get rid of those for whom the policies were created.

The following eight elements are common sense and uncomplicated; and, the absence of them will seriously hurt organizations in the near future.

#1—Positive Assumptions about People

Dealing with the five-percent unconsciously taints your assumptions about people.  If leaders have spent time dealing with someone who lies, lays out, does the minimum required and tries to get away with as much as possible, that experience can create a distrust and desire to micromanage and control everyone.  Evidence of these assumptions is seen when there is restricted access to specific areas for certain groups; doors, cabinets and tool cribs are locked; managers accept performance minimums vs. maximums; information is guarded; and self-management is a distant concept.  It becomes irrational for employees to feel like valued adults and in return, the organization receives compliance, a lack of passion and a check the box performance.

Leading with positive assumptions about the quality and integrity of the majority of the workforce promotes pride, passion and accountability.It’s valuing employees and doing the right thing that leads to exceptional performance. Click To Tweet

#2—Identification and Elimination of Negatives

A negative is defined as “anything that minimizes vs. maximizes a person’s feeling of VALUE to the organization”.  Many of these are almost invisible to the people who have the power to eliminate them.  Examples include:  free water or coffee in some areas and not in others, reserved parking for executives, punitive policies that apply to one group of employees but not another, differences in holiday and vacation schedules, late performance appraisals and wage increases, etc.

Most of these negatives are easy to eliminate.  Leaders only need to put themselves in the shoes of their hourly-paid employees to see and feel them—and then get rid of them.

#3—Mutual Trust and Respect

Major headway in creating an environment of mutual trust and respect can be achieved by doing the first two elements.  And, if a company wants to be able to unlock supplies and equipment and treat people as responsible adults, there must be recognition that there will probably be some theft and deceit until the five-percenters are gone. However, it will be worth it to have created a high trust environment for the rest of the workforce.  In addition, create the standard that trust is a required attribute in order to receive a job offer.  Clearly communicate trust as a core value and treat any violation of trust as a dischargeable offense.

#4—Open, Two-Way, Adult-to-Adult Communication

In essence, share information, be open, and avoid secrets.  Speak to everyone at every level as you would a neighbor you like.  Remember that people, regardless of the type of work they perform, have the same desire for involvement and respect as managers and senior leaders do.

#5—Employee Engagement

Visionary experts in areas of organizational development predict the end of hierarchies—at least as you know them today. If it can be agreed that the people doing the jobs are the ones who know the jobs the best, why aren’t leaders empowering employees to solve problems and create continuous improvement in every organization?


A company’s investment in training reflects its value for people and a clear belief that good people only get better and produce greater results with an investment in their development.  Manufacturing companies often have a substantial budget for preventative maintenance on equipment, but limit (or even reduce if revenue is low) the necessary dollars for maintaining each person’s potential capacity.

#7—Competitive Wages and Benefits

In a high performance culture, the objective is to make wages and benefits a “non-issue”.  If people are challenged, valued and fairly compensated, they are reluctant to take another job for more money.  Fairness is perceived and achieved by regularly checking the market value for all jobs and paying competitively (meaning around and often somewhat above the market midpoint), sharing the survey data if someone is interested and being transparent about ranges and the compensation structure.  If a company is providing competitive pay and benefits, there shouldn’t be any mystery around this topic.

#8—High Expectations

Many leaders will admit that they have employees who are only doing the “minimum”.  In most traditional companies, job descriptions are specific with regard to the tasks to be performed.  Instead, write job profiles that set high expectations for the results versus the tasks involved.  And replace that common phrase at the bottom of those descriptions that says, “All other duties as assigned” with “Proactively support the team and company in achieving its objectives”.  Now the person who just waits to be told what to do is no longer meeting the minimum.

When leaders don’t set high expectations, they shouldn’t be surprised when average results are achieved.  Further, high expectations give people a purpose for their work along especially when their leaders’ believe they will be successful.

Start Now

There are many applications under each of these elements that convert the words to tangible actions and practices.  If any of these eight elements is missing within an organization, it’s time to take action.

It’s valuing employees and doing the right thing that leads to exceptional performance.  It really isn’t complicated.

Sue Bingham is the founder of the HPWP Group, a master coach, speaker, and author of the book, Creating The High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment. At the forefront of the positive business movement, Sue supports leaders as they achieve their vision of success, and designs common-sense systems that make people and organizations more effective. For more information about Sue Bingham, please visit: