How To Discipline Employees To Create Fair & Democratic Boundaries

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Why is it important for companies to learn how to discipline employees in a fair and democratic manner?

We were in an authoritarian society for decades and the corporate culture used to exhibit similar values. But, things have started shifting to a more democratic way of life in companies.

While everyone has a right to speak up and express themselves, there's still a need for some ground rules and discipline to keep things working in order.

It gets more complicated when companies have offices across nations. Multinationals have specific ethics and values ingrained in their culture, derived from the founding country.

Such companies, spanning geographical areas, give rise to a lot of confusion and conflicting understandings of certain acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Sometimes, company culture and country cultures clash.

For example, the parent country may value individualistic ways of thinking, while an offsite location may value group thinking more. Punctuality may be non-negotiable in some countries, while quite lax in others.

The list goes on.

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As a leader, you might find yourself straddling between such dichotomies, at some point.

However, you still want to stay true to your company values and have a healthy relationship with your team members where people are happy and productive while maintaining the desired level of discipline.

To learn how to discipline employees fairly and effectively, here are 6 things you need to consider.

1. Clarify the rules.

First, are the rules clear?

As the corporate landscape transforms rapidly, newer challenges are surfacing daily.

During a senior leadership offsite I was facilitating, one department head was complaining to the other about how their team members are trying out clothes received in packages from online retailers at work.

Packages were being ordered at work because people were not at home during the day to receive the shipments. So, what is the policy on opening them?

While these things are so basic and you want to trust employees to have the right judgment, sometimes, expectations do need to be spelled out.

2. Communicate with your team.

Is there a clear communication of acceptable behaviors across the organization?

The rules must be clearly articulated and repeatedly communicated through words, actions, and behavior.

3. Be a role model.

Is the senior leadership team role-modeling the desired expectations they have from the rest of the employees?

It's entirely pointless to have regulations if the rule-setters are not adhering to them.

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4. Set realistic rules.

Are employees following the rules too rigidly? If the leadership team comes from a very authoritarian value system, they can sometimes be very unrealistic in their expectations from the younger team members.

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They are very hard on themselves and by extension, don’t realize when they're hard on others.

5. Don’t expect people to obey the rules immediately.

It's difficult to change years of conditioning behavior patterns and habits.

Culture change is a slow and steady process.

6. Be firm without coming across as a dictator.

It must be done in tiny nudges.

I used to attend a regular meeting as a junior programmer many years ago in Dallas. I remember being five minutes late once for that meeting. My manager refused to open the door for me and I had to go back without attending.

I was very junior and was shocked, ashamed, and scared, but never in my life was I ever late for meetings again.

Now, this worked in the past — 20 years ago — and I did not retaliate. However, in the current environment, such actions can backfire and the manager will likely be reprimanded.

You have to discipline while remaining respectful yet firm.

An example of setting boundaries in a firm yet respectful manner.

For example, with the topic of punctuality, everyone is allowed to be late sometimes. However, if it's a frequent occurrence in the company or specifically with some individuals, you can still address it in a fair yet firm manner.

Imagine a common scenario: A few people are gathered in a room on time for a meeting. The person running the meeting says, "Let's wait for the others."

A few people trickle in five to 10 minutes after the start time, apologizing.

To address the tardiness, what you can do is make sure the meeting invite has clear start and end times on the agenda. The email invite can include something like: "Please note there will be a hard stop at the end time.”

Or you could say, "This meeting will start sharp at 11:00 a.m. and will end on time, keeping everyone’s schedules in mind."

Once the expectation of being on time is set over repeated meetings and it still doesn't move the needle, lightly suggest setting up a late fee of minimal amount for being late. You could allocate the collected money to buy treats for the next team meeting.

Always start your meetings sharp on time. Don’t punish punctual people.

Keep going, even while the tardy folks are trickling in. Out of politeness, you don’t have to stop and bring them up to speed. Note, you're wasting time on the folks that made it on time.

Respect is the underlying value that gets compromised when there's a lack of basic discipline — it could be disrespect of time, property, or people.

As a leader, drawing attention to that and not getting personal about is the way to correct it.

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Bhavna Dalal is a Master Certified Executive Coach MCC ICF, speaker, and author of Checkmate Office Politics" who helps people develop their leadership skills such as executive presence, strategic thinking, influencing and networking, women leadership, and so on. To know more about her work, visit her website or find her on LinkedIn

This article was originally published at Forbes India. Reprinted with permission from the author.