The Case for Offering Second Chances to Misbehaving Employees

by Daniel B. Griffith, J.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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Though necessary at times, formal disciplinary measures, also called “progressive discipline,” should be used sparingly for clearly egregious behaviors for which policy is clear and, in most cases, only after repeated attempts to counsel the offending employee have failed. Adhering to this principle and offering instead “second chance” options are essential for supporting otherwise good employees and protecting the employer’s investment against the turnover costs that will inevitably follow as a result of imposing unnecessarily harsh and punitive measures. Let’s examine the rationale behind this approach and steps for offering second chances, whenever possible.

Rationale for Avoiding Formal Discipline
As much as managers may want to “throw the book” at offending employees, they are better advised to understand human behavior. If we have invested in our employees by hiring and developing them, and if we believe they are fundamentally worth the effort, then we must understand their negative reactions to formal discipline measures. When we blow it, and are able to own up to it, our nature is to want the opportunity to amend our ways. Yet, our tendency is also to become guarded if we think that acknowledging our failings will only be used against us to impose a penalty.

Formal discipline has all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Whether warranted or not, the mere act of imposing discipline destroys trust, goodwill, and the positive working relationships we’ve tried to build. It is also unnecessary when, with the right incentives, we might be able to appeal to employees’ innate desire to change and return to good behavior without manipulating their behavior through discipline. With formal discipline as the tool of choice, we remove employees’ natural inclination to want to change. We send the message that “second chances” are not possible.

Formal discipline comes with an implied threat -- “do this or else.” It also generally imposes time periods by which the employee must continue to avoid the behaviors that got him in trouble before discipline is lifted. This creates a stigma. Employees naturally become disheartened under such circumstances. They still have options, of course, including leaving for better opportunities at their earliest opportunity. And the employer has lost its investment in an otherwise good employee.

Steps for Implementing “Second Chance” Options
Allowing for second chances does not mean we are “soft” or willing to excuse bad behavior. When employees misbehave, managers should be firm that their behaviors are inexcusable and will not be tolerated. The difference is what comes after delivering this message. When you have observed inappropriate behavior and want to avoid discipline, consider these steps:
  • Counsel the employee and set clear expectations that behavior must change to avoid discipline. If the offense is potentially subject to discipline, say so. Let the employee know that she has the chance to improve her behavior to avoid discipline, but that she must take the matter seriously and she must improve.
  • Continue counseling the employee during the “second chance” period. Perhaps set weekly meetings to discuss how she is doing. If there are continued concerns, let her know. But if she has made strides to improve, be sure to reinforce and celebrate this. These meetings are also opportunities to respond to any personal or professional concerns that the employee may share and to provide coaching or referral to the appropriate resource for further assistance.
  • When behavior improves, ensure a “clean slate” and restore the employee to “good conduct” status. During the “second chance” period, reinforce your belief in the employee and her ability to change. Make clear that you have every expectation she will soon return to a “clean slate.” Then, do as you promised as soon as it is clear the behavior has changed and is not likely to be repeated. Don’t leave the employee guessing and allow a lingering stigma to attach.
When Discipline Becomes Necessary
There are occasions, of course, when imposing formal discipline is unavoidable. For additional guidance on such circumstances, refer to Insubordinate Employees May Deserve a Second Chance. Discipline may be warranted, for instance, for overt and egregious offenses covered by policy and even for a persistent pattern of less egregious offenses after the employee has not responded to the second chances offered. Whatever the case, if discipline is appropriate, then impose discipline by all means. As much as employers should be careful and allow for second chances, if the cause is lost because of the employee’s refusal or apparent inability to change, then be decisive. Don’t allow such matters to linger and infect the rest of the workforce. Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but this is the more humane approach. When the employment relationship is irrevocably severed, it is best for the employer, the employee in question, and other employees impacted by the bad actor to have the opportunity to move on to a different and likely better reality than to remain stuck under the misguided belief that things will change.