Basic Principles of Discipline - Things You must get Right

Managers and Team Leaders should always remember that the primary objective of discipline is to improve an individual’s performance and/or behaviour – it is not to punish. Although some of the phases and stages of the Disciplinary Process could appear to some as a form of punishment, the objective is to try and turn around the behaviour and/or performance of the individual. If we achieve this objective, it is positive for the organisation, and is a far less costly process than finding a new employee and hoping that they will be satisfactory. 

Performance/Behaviour Shortfalls

When there is a performance or behaviour shortfall, it is imperative that the Manager/Team Leader speaks as early as possible with the employee. At this time they should clearly explain the gap between desired and actual performance and try to ensure that the employee fully understands and accepts the shortfall. Many Managers/Team Leaders regard this as an unpalatable task and keep postponing such conversations. Therefore they often do not address poor performance/behaviour as early as they should. Not talking about a problem area may often appear as condoning it. Consequently the performance worsens or the improper behaviour continues, leading to more frustration on the part of the Team Leader

The Importance of Early Intervention

This failure to confront as early as possible what needs to be changed, can often lead to a later mini-explosion on the part of the Manager/Team Leader, with a likely possibility that the relationship worsens. It can also lead to heightened frustration on the part of the employee and this can further dent the relationship. When a relationship is even slightly fractured it is more difficult to develop good quality dialogue, which is the only sound basis from which to start the corrective process.

1.1    Steps in an Improvement Process

  • Clarify both parties’ view of current performance/behaviour
  • Ensure that the employee becomes fully aware of the gap between current and desired performance/behaviour
  • Put in place a Development Plan to overcome the shortcomings
  • Provide support for the employee during the timeframe of the plan
  • Review progress at regular intervals thereafter

Providing Help and Support

Managers and Team Leaders also have a responsibility to clarify, during these early interventions, how they can help the employee close the performance/behaviour gap. Improving performance is not just the responsibility of the employee. The Team Leader must be proactive in helping the employee to bring about the required change. 

A first step in this redirecting of the employee’s performance/behaviour should see the Team Leader asking how they can assist the required change and then delivering the context, knowledge, and/or any skills training that might be required. 

Team Leaders often overlook this key coaching/mentoring responsibility, either seeing it as not part of their job or feeling that they do not have the skills. It is however, a really important part of changing behaviour and a pre-requisite for best practice management.

Agreeing a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

If it has been clearly shown how behaviour should change then a plan should be put in place that will direct the employee towards such change. The Team Leader should write out a Performance Improvement Plan which clearly shows individuals how they should improve prior to moving to even the informal stage of discipline. 

Likewise if it is job performance that needs to change, then it may be that a Training or Development Plan which would permit performance development should be put in place. 

Both of these need a step-by-step process as major improvement does not take place instantly and often requires an incremental approach.

1.2    Developing a Performance Improvement Plan

  • Discuss with the employee their view of where performance/behaviour is falling short of expectations
  • Add the Manager’s/Team Leader’s view
  • Try to achieve consensus about the two views
  • Jointly search for a plan to bring about the required change
  • Commit this plan to writing as a Performance Improvement Plan
  • Support the employee in the implementation of the plan
  • Review progress and reward success and/or build a further plan for additional change.

It is critical that sufficient time is given to allow for the skill/knowledge development that will allow for this improvement. Thus, there is no pre-determined timing between different stages of a Performance Improvement Plan. The employee must be given sufficient time to modify the performance/behaviour prior to moving on to the next stage of the plan.

Providing Feedback on Progress

Team Leaders should give clear feedback signals where performance behaviour improves/dis-improves and they should not postpone this until it is almost too late.

Managers/Team Leaders often find it difficult to give employee feedback.  However it is a vital part of the process, see the Tips within 1.3 below.

1.3     Tips for Giving Feedback

  • Prepare well and have all the relevant information to hand
  • Ask the employee for their view of progress to date
  • Provide your view with supportive evidence
  • Use a positive/motivating approach
  • Reward even small changes within areas for improvement
  • Use a coaching/mentoring approach
  • Endeavour to bring the employee to a shared understanding of the further change required.

The Importance of Fairness

All of the above must be viewed within the value of Fairness, which is a key basic principle of discipline. Fairness should characterise the way the employee’s difficulties are understood, the plan that is put in place, and the full journey towards improvement.

When an organisation makes a disciplinary intervention, the perception of fairness is not solely pertaining to the employee. At all times the organisation and its approaches are being assessed by the ‘internal jury’. The internal jury are the individuals and groups within the organisation that will determine whether what they perceive is fair and they will openly discuss their view with other members of the organisation. The application of fairness at all stages of the Disciplinary process will help these individuals and groups determine that the organisation is serious about developing and maintaining a sound culture, one which is focused on fairness, improving performance and/or changing behaviours.

When we talk of Disciplinary interventions, the impact on the culture of an organisation should not be underestimated. A best practice organisation will understand the role discipline and dismissal plays in the culture of the organisation, and ensure that disciplinary interventions are rooted in the best values and behaviours of their culture. If the culture of the organisation is not a central consideration in the disciplinary intervention, or if the values and behaviours applied are inconsistent with the organisation’s values, then the organisation may witness a gradual erosion of that culture.

1.4    Fairness in Practice – The Basics

  • Fairness tries to look at things through the other person’s eyes
  • Fairness strives to take account of the views put forward by the other person
  • Fairness gives serious thought to the ways the other person can be helped in their search for improved performance/behaviour
  • Fairness treats all employees in a similar fashion with no favouritism.


  • The objective of discipline is to improve performance/behaviour, not to punish
  • Performance/behaviour shortfalls should be confronted as early as possible
  • A Performance Improvement Plan to address these shortfalls needs to be put in place
  • It is critically important for the Manager to provide help and support for the employee to help them to achieve the required change
  • Regular feedback on progress in a coaching/mentoring mode is an important part of the change process
  • Fairness must be brought into all aspects of the approach to discipline.

At HRforSMEs we can help organisations put in place all of the necessary Basic Principles for Discipline – in policy and in practice and all other HR/IR issues.

Call us today on 01-278-8980 for more information

And you can learn much more about the Basic Principles of Discipline and many other aspects of Discipline in the book ‘Discipline and Dismissal’ (written by Frank Scott-Lennon and Dr. Mary Redmond) which is available at