“Can I speak to you in my office for a moment?”
In a certain context this is the last thing an employee wants to hear. Recently I have come across numerous pieces which describe over-the-top “disciplinary procedures” in the workplace. These procedures range from a nasty court summons style letter to a hearing. Organisations attempt to justify pouring excessive resources into keeping employees in line as they believe it keeps them oprating at peak efficiency, but is this true? Excessive workplace discipline has become a major problem in Ireland with a 2013 report finding that 77% of employers had dismissed employees without even adhering to their own disciplinary procedures, (Hosford, 2013). This post examines when workplaces develop their own pseudo-legal system and the consequences of taking discipline too far.
Death by Paperwork:
Substantial evidence shows that when employees feel they have freedom at work they become more productive, committed and less likely to walk out of an organisation, (Gagné & Devasheesh as cited in Nauert, 2015). Despite this many employers ensure that on day one of employment employees sign a (usually) long winded contract and read an even more overwritten handbook which clearly outlines what happens when they put a toe out of line. While I accept that clear rules are needed to ensure employees aren’t stealing and coming in wasted many employers invoke harsh “procedures” for even the smallest mistakes. The problem with bombarding employees with rules and regulations on day one is simple: people hate being told what to do, (Jacobs, 2013). On day one of the job employees have lost that vital sense of autonomy (freedom) mentioned above which does not paint a positive picture of how they are likely to perform.
The Consequence of too much Authority:
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”
When an organisation poorly versed in employee relations writes the over-the-top contract mentioned above somebody needs to enforce it. Enter the managers and supervisors. Most of these professionals are caring, empathetic and effective but some senior staff appear to have appointed themselves as workplace police and judges. Years of research in organisational psychology has shown us that nasty managers/supervisors are ineffective, (Hamel, 2016) and a thorn in the paw of any organisation.
So how does it happen? Psychologists have named this the “paradox of power”. To become a leader one must have certain traits such as politeness, being an outgoing person and honesty, but all good things must come to an end. The paradox of power shows us that when a person reaches a position of power they often lose these traits and become rude, reckless and impulsive, (Lehrer, 2010). Giving certain individuals excessive power in organisations is a dangerous move as those with a greater sense of power tend to advocate much harsher punishments in comparison to those who were more modest, (Wiltermuth & Flynn, 2013). To bluntly summarise: if certain managers and supervisors wish to act as if they are the law then perhaps they should hit the books once more and change careers.
So we have established that overwritten paperwork and nasty management is ineffective (and this is painfully obvious). Sadly this is only the start of the problem. Excessive discipline may cause excessive deviance. Lawrence & Robinson (2007) suggest that excessive organisational power leads to a loss of autonomy, identity and a sense of injustice among employees which in turn causes frustration among the workforce. The authors also suggest that this attempt to keep employees in line actually does the opposite: it motivates employees to engage in deviance to get retribution for injustice. This retribution could be as simple as employees intentionally being unproductive. Annoy enough employees with excessive discipline and you may just find yourself in hot water.
One deplorable way some organisations ensure employees are following the rule book is through excessive monitoring. While an eye does need to be kept on employees to ensure things are up to speed, is breathing down their necks really necessary? Not only is it a waste of resources and a little creepy, it paradoxically damages productivity. A wealth of circumstantial evidence shows that excessive monitoring results in significantly increased anxiety and stress, (Roberts, n.d.) which aside from causing a toxic work environment directly harms employee productivity and increases absenteeism, (Towers Watson, 2014).
The Real Law:
Excessive workplace discipline is not only counterproductive but it may bring the law knocking on an employer’s door. I am no solicitor or legal expert but some reading found that in Ireland employees are protected from this sort of behaviour by law and employers have a duty to “prevent any improper conduct or behaviour likely to put the safety, health and welfare of employees at risk”, (Health & Safety at Work Act, 2005, sec. 8). An employee could easily allege they were being intimidated by a superior through excessive monitoring or over the top procedures which impacted their health and welfare at work. Dismissals can also be disputed and employers may find themselves in hot water under the Unfair Dismissals Acts (1977-2015). This also applies to constructive dismissals (where an employee has elected to leave their job due to the conduct of an employer). To put it bluntly: if an organisation acts like it is the law, it might just attract the law.
The idea that running an organisation as a “tight ship” in regards to discipline is an outdated myth which has been shown to be very ineffective. Employees need a certain degree of freedom and respect if organisations wish to hold on to a productive workforce. Those enforcing codes of conduct must be carefully selected and monitored to ensure they are fit for purpose. The modern workplace is changing fast with employees becoming more critical and able to take real action against unfair treatment. This has become a priority for statutory organisations (who are the real law) so organisations attempting to put themselves in a position of excessive authority over employees may be simply overpowered and put in line.
Hamel, G. (2016). What Is a Bully Management Style?. Chron. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/bully-management-style-35804.html
Hosford, P. (2013). 77 per cent of Irish bosses have sacked an employee without following procedures. The Journal. Retrieved from http://www.thejournal.ie/employers-admit-firing-staff-and-not-following-procedure-1123384-Oct2013/
ISB,. (2005). Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Irishstatutebook.ie. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2005/act/10/enacted/en/html
Jacobs, C. (2013). Don’t Read This. Psychology Today. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/management-rewired/201305/dont-read
Law Reform Ireland,. (2016). Unfair Dismissals Act 1977. Lawreform.ie. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from http://www.lawreform.ie/_fileupload/RevisedActs/WithAnnotations/HTML/EN_ACT_1977_0010.htm
Lawrence, T. & Robinson, S. (2007). Ain’t Misbehavin: Workplace Deviance as Organizational Resistance. Journal Of Management, 33(3), 378-394. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0149206307300816
Lehrer, J. (2010). How Power Corrupts. WIRED. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from http://www.wired.com/2011/05/how-power-corrupts/
Nauert, R. (2011). Worker Autonomy Can Lead to Greater Productivity, Satisfaction | Psych Central News. Psych Central. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/01/25/worker-autonomy-can-lead-to-greater-productivity-satisfaction/22885.html
Roberts, A. Monitoring In The Workplace: Health Concerns. Stanford University. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/courses/cs181/projects/electronic-monitoring/health.html
Towers Watson,. (2014). Workplace stress leads to less productive employees. Towers Watson. Retrieved 14 July 2016, from https://www.towerswatson.com/en/Press/2014/09/Workplace-stress-leads-to-less-productive-employees
Wiltermuth, S. S., & Flynn, F. J. (2013). Power, Moral Clarity, And Punishment In The Workplace. Academy Of Management Journal, 56(4), 1002-1023. doi:10.5465/amj.2010.0960