Employee misconduct can be so severe and/or repetitive as to demand disciplinary actions. For such cases, a progressive disciplinary protocol should be standardized by the organization and made known to employees when they are hired. Many companies have their disciplinary procedures published in organizational handbooks and/or review such procedures during the training process. Published protocol helps to establish legitimate power and minimize the arbitrary application of disciplinary action. The official endorsement of power and the elimination of arbitrary implementation of disciplinary actions can help mitigate the struggles of those involved in the conflict as they attempt to forcibly assume power and engage in face-saving behaviors.
Years ago, disciplinary action was required for an incident that occurred at a state school*. An employee who worked as a trainer, or caretaker, for mentally challenged residents lost control of her emotions, grabbed a resident by the wrists and began to verbally abuse her, including calling her profane names. The incident was witnessed by another trainer who then reported it to the supervisors. The subsequent disciplinary actions taken will be briefly reviewed in this article, including a look at the issues of power and face-saving.
Power is the ability to influence and/or control others, and is generally not owned by anyone without an endorsement by others (Folger, Poole, Stutman, 2009, pg. 140); power, then, is conferred by group agreement. In some cases, endorsement of someone’s power is enforced through an organization’s policies that require respect for the authority of official positions in the organization. These positions have associated control over certain aspects of the organization, such as the ability to confer rewards and punishments. The endorsement is twofold: the organization officially endorses power of position through its policies, and members endorse such power through their forced adherence to the policies. This is generally what happens in cases of disciplinary action: the assigned authority (i.e. the endorsed power) controls the enforcement of punishment or corrective measures.
At the state school, the official policy for disciplinary action was followed. The witness, a co-worker of the abusive employee, reported to the immediate supervisor. The witness (a male) was the only one to see the abuse, and the abusive employee (a female) knew he saw it. He immediately told the supervisor without warning the abusive employee, so she had no opportunity to protest or plead her case with him. His knowledge of the event gave him a power that directly affected the course of events that followed. Because of the severity of the offense, the supervisor reported to her superiors. These individuals had official power (legitimate) as endorsed by the organization’s policies. The abusive employee endorsed these powers because of her respect for authority and the hierarchy of the organization, which, she knew, limited her powers. She never denied the incident and knew she was guilty. The eventual punishment was to demote her to a lower-paying janitorial position, and she was no longer allowed to work with residents.
There are two-sides to “face,” so-to-speak: positive face is the desire for approval by others (Folger, Poole, Stutman, 2009, pg. 175). Negative face is the desire for autonomy. The face is threatened when there is a large social distance between parties; a disparity between the relative powers of the parties; and when the request or demand compromises autonomy (Folger, Poole, Stutman, 2009, pg. 175). The positive face reflects our need for inclusiveness and to be seen in a positive light, while the negative face reflects our need for personal power.
In the case of the abusive employee at the state school, she attempted to save face by explaining her actions as, while unacceptable, a result of a high stress work environment. Incidentally, this was true. The lack of productive, effective, and fair supervision created a very negative work environment and placed a great deal of stress on lower-ranking employees; however, all trainers were forced to wield the same stress and did not unleash expletives at the residents. Her actions were her own, but she did try and present herself in a less negative light by explaining that the stressors in the workplace were too much. This was an effort to support an image of herself as being a basically good person in an impossible situation. She did not want to be viewed as an abuser, nor did she want to internalize that image of herself. Her face-saving efforts, and her lack of a record, may have prevented her from being fired altogether.
When dealing with disciplinary actions, power and authority must be made explicit through the organization’s policies; the procedures for progressive discipline in accordance to specific offenses should also be provided to employees. These efforts minimize the occurrence of the arbitrary application of disciplinary actions by avoiding the need to establish power through the enfoldment of the conflict, which almost always involves face-saving efforts. Face-saving efforts often confuse the original issue and prevent or postpone any resolution that could have been readily reached with clear policies and guidelines. Policies and progressive disciplinary procedures clearly direct the course of actions taken to best resolve conflicts generated due to employee misconduct and should be available to all organizational members.
*This happened about 18 years ago when I worked at a state school.
Folger, J.P., Marshall, S.P., & Stutman, R.K. (2009). Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations. Boston, Massachussetts: Pearson Education, Inc.