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59 Fed. Probation 40 (1995)
Discipline with Dignity: A Positive Approach for Managers

handle is hein.journals/fedpro59 and id is 216 raw text is: Discipline With Dignity: A Positive
Approach for Managers
By PETER M. WITrENBERG
Assistant Chief, Office of Congressional Affairs, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Washington, DC

EVERAL YEARS ago while performing my du-
ties as human resource manager at a medium-
security prison, I recommended to my
supervisors that an employee be terminated from his
position as correctional officer. He had been in the
position approximately 3 years and was considered a
competent employee. My recommendation was based
on information discovered in the course of the em-
ployee's pre-employment background investigation.
My supervisors concurred with my recommenda-
tion, and after the disciplinary processes were com-
plete, the warden of the facility terminated the
employee. The employee appealed the decision, and
the case was accepted by the Merit Systems Protection
Board (MSPB), which is responsible for adjudicating
such matters. The MSPB held a hearing, listened to
witnesses, reviewed the disciplinary action file, and
ultimately ruled in favor of the agency. The termina-
tion of the employee was upheld. Shortly thereafter,
the former employee committed suicide.
Over the years I have thought of that employee
often. I have replayed in my mind the circumstances
surrounding my recommendation to terminate his em-
ployment and have asked myself if, given the same set
of facts, I would have made a similar decision today.
The answer is yes. The recommendation was based on
a reasonable interpretation of the facts, and the war-
den agreed with that recommendation only after he
had made an extensive review of the evidence. Addi-
tionally, the fact that the MSPB found in favor of the
agency supports the conclusion that the removal ac-
tion was warranted and justified.
The above example clearly reflects, in my mind at
least, the consequences that managers must deal with
when handling an employee disciplinary action (or
other action that could have a negative impact on the
career of the employee). Supervisors, managers, and
resource staff get paid to make tough decisions-deci-
sions that often lead to disciplinary action against staff
members. That's part of the job. However, during the
years I was in human resources I met some supervi-
sors and managers whose first inclination is to ham-
mer the employee for some transgression. These
managers had not realized the impact that they would
have on the employee and, by extension, the em-
ployee's family.
We have all read the horror stories of employees (and
former employees) returning to the workplace and
VoL 59, No. 3

exacting a terrible vengeance against managers and
coworkers. The December 13, 1993, edition of U.S.
News and World Report reported that the number of
violent incidents in the workplace during 1992 was
111,000; that 750 deaths resulted due to those inci-
dents; and that the annual cost of such violence to
employers was $4.2 billion. The magazine listed the
most common characteristics of an at-risk work en-
vironment: chronic labor-management disputes, a
high number of grievances, a high level of overtime
requests, a high number of stressed personnel, and an
authoritarian management approach.
Workers responding violently to a bad work environ-
ment or situation 'may be mentally ill or may be
lashing out at a situation that they feel they have lost
control of. They may feel they have no other course of
action available to them. No matter what the reason,
somewhere in the process, something terrible has gone
wrong.
I view the responses that an employee may have to
a disciplinary action in the same way that Dr. Elisa-
beth Kubler-Ross views a person's response to the
knowledge that he or she is dying. Dr. Kubler-Ross
lists the following stages an individual moves through
when facing death:
1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance
Employees may have similar feelings when confronted
by such an overwhelming crisis as a job termination,
and management officials must be sensitive to these
emotions.
This article focuses on how to prepare an employee
for a disciplinary action (or other bad news such as
- losing a promotion opportunity) and how to afford the
employee a level of dignity during the disciplinary
process. As a former human resource manager who
has often been in the uncomfortable position of break-
ing the bad news to an employee, I have observed
reactions from staff members that range from fuming
quietly to being almost catatonic to accepting the news
in good humor. Obviously, each employee is different.
However, managers should expect the worst and be
prepared to defuse negative reactions that accompany
most employee disciplinary decisions.

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