Carrot and Stick


Putting a disciplinary code in place may feel a bit like writing an ante-nuptial contract – pre-empting a divorce before the marriage has begun. Reality is that the workplace is made up of people and people are not always rational or well-behaved.

There are many considerations when developing a disciplinary code, but perhaps the most important starting point is to ask yourself why? What is it that you want to achieve by having a disciplinary code? The first answer that will naturally spring to mind is ‘’discipline”; a close second would be “labour law”. Employers are very wary of the South African labour market that is highly regulated and in some industries even militant. While these are valid reasons for having a code in place, they lean towards the ‘stick’ approach. If we focus rather on what would be the ideal workplace culture, then our approach to discipline is different and perhaps more productive.

An ideal workforce would be happy, motivated, engaged, competent, hard-working, customer-focused… (Feel free to add your own adjectives.) Visualise the look and feel of such a workplace and the impact on business, customers and your stress levels. The question then, is how do we achieve this or at least how can we start to get there?  Hiring the right staff with a great attitude is surely a logical starting point, but what if you already have staff and the attitude or performance levels are not acceptable?

An honesty check is required at this point – of you, not the employees. Are the expectations and standards of performance clear and have you communicated these to the employees? We operate in a country that has eleven official languages and goodness knows how many unofficial. Even if all the staff speak English fluently, simplicity and precision is the key to effective communication. (Take the word: “often”, just how many times is that? Once a week, three times a week, daily?) A failure to perform at the required standard may be a failure on behalf of management to formalize and communicate that standard.

Managers of small businesses are busy and it seems to be yet another bit of tedious paperwork but the time taken to set standards and procedures can save an enormous amount of time and frustration later. Where standards are reinforced by pictures, examples, and checklists, then employees feel more confident that they are doing what is expected. These standards are then the core of a performance management system. We assess performance against those standards, so it is fair, and we use those same documents for training or coaching.

Assuming that the standards are in place yet the employee is not performing accordingly, then the manager needs to determine whether or not this is a competency issue or behavioral.

If the non-performance is due to a lack of skill or knowledge (competence) then the manager is required to provide the employee with the opportunity to remedy this by job shadowing, coaching, training or where practical, further study. Labour law does require a genuine effort on the part of the employer to assist the employee to improve competence. However, the employee is also required to make use of the learning opportunity and to improve his / her skills or knowledge. Regular and consistent evaluation against the standards ensure that improvement can be tracked openly. It is so important that any improvement is acknowledged to build confidence and motivation. Should performance not improve acceptably over a reasonable period of time, then formal discipline may be required to deal with employee resistance.

Where the gap is behavioural e.g. negligence; refusal to obey a lawful instruction; or repeated absenteeism, then the disciplinary code should be applied. A well-considered and constructed disciplinary code takes much of the guesswork out of discipline.

Discipline is necessary and productive in the workplace but the application of discipline can be addressed with both carrots and sticks. To develop a positive and engaged workforce, the carrots should be the go-to for managers

The aim of discipline is to create a harmonious and productive workforce, not to scare or wield power. Fair standards, policies and procedures help management to help staff perform better.

Author: Janet Askew


Janet Askew

Janet is a trainer, coach, speaker and writer who is passionate about promoting women in business and SMME development. In addition to her consulting work, she is a director of Essentially Natural and serves on the board of the Wot-If? Trust.




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