When Punishment Backfires at Work

A punitive action rarely results in improved performance.


I recently read about new government regulations that fine airlines $27,500 per passenger for long delays on the tarmac. Nobody likes to be delayed. I once spent six hours sitting on a runway in Texas, and, in order to appease the passengers, the flight attendants handed out free alcohol. Need I even mention how many people took them up on their offer? Or that the wait became even less pleasant, because not only were we stuck a plane, but we were now stuck on a plane with drunken college students?

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So, I am all in favor of doing whatever it takes to prevent these kinds of delays. And, the best way to change behavior is to punish the behavior, right? Let's say you have an employee who keeps making mistakes. The best thing to do is to tell that person that any additional mistakes will result in immediate termination. That will ensure the person will stop making the mistakes. Right?

Let's look at what happened with the airlines. The government said, "No more long delays or we'll fine you a tremendous amount." But the airlines cannot control the weather. They cannot make air traffic control bump them up in the queue. So, they used their only means of control: They canceled flights.

Let me tell you, I really did not enjoy sitting on the runway for 6 hours. But I would have enjoyed it even less if the flight had been canceled.

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So, what happens with that employee that you've just told one more mistake and you're out? Well, what areas does the employee have control over? It's not likely that the employee made mistakes on purpose. If they did, that would be sabotage and I'd encourage termination in that case. But, more than likely there is something that the employee is lacking control over--timing, workload, coworkers, and even knowledge.

I hear the cries of protest: Employees are responsible for managing their own projects and it certainly isn't a manager's job to get the employee the right knowledge! If they don't know something, they need to seek out a training class or read a textbook, or ask to shadow someone!

Working without management support and under the threat of losing the job, none of that is going to happen. So, the employee will react in areas he has control over--pushing off other projects, begging coworkers, coming in early and staying late and it may solve the problem temporarily, but not permanently.

A punitive action rarely results in improved performance. What the employee needs is a performance improvement plan. This should guide the employee on how to fix the problem, not just inform the employee that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. If you just choose the punitive, you may end up with canceled flights, and that is not solving your problem.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human resources experience, most of which have been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.


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