Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Skamvrån_av_Carl_Larsson_1894OK, the final topic from my management course that was new to me was Progressive Discipline. I am sure my friends in industry and the private sector will scoff and laugh at my ignorance, but I had no idea what this was. I also had no idea how to enforce what I wanted to happen in my group. If someone didn’t listen to me (they were insubordinate – another word that I “knew” but didn’t use before my management course), I would ask them to change and when they didn’t I would fire them. It wasn’t usually one strike and you are out, but I would not have any nuanced response. I didn’t have the  knowledge of progressive discipline.

So what is progressive discipline? Progressive discipline is the process of using increasingly severe steps or measures when an employee fails to correct a problem after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so. As you know, I have a Research Group Rules document, when I have described in the past (described here and here). After learning about progressive discipline, I updated the lab rules to include a section about it. Here is what the new section says:

Progressive discipline

  • Failure to comply with these rules or other requests made by me or failure to fulfill your assigned duties will result in the initiation of progressive discipline.
  • Warning. First indication of a problematic action will result in a conversation with me. A follow-up email to you from me will follow the conversation so that you are clear about the problem and the solution.
  • Official Verbal Warning. If the problematic actions persist, you will receive a verbal warning. The verbal warning will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • Official Written Warning. If the problematic actions persist after the verbal warning, you will receive a written warning. The written warning will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • Dismissal. If the problematic actions persist after the written warning, you will be dismissed from the laboratory. The dismissal will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • For undergraduates receiving a grade for credit, a verbal warning or worse will result in a lower grade for the semester.
  • There are two offenses that will result in immediate discipline and possible dismissal from the lab:
    • Safety violations. Actions that endanger the safety of the lab, yourself, or your labmates will result in immediate dismissal from the lab. You have many opportunities to learn how to conduct your experiments safely in the lab including Health and Safety training classes and online courses, the BootCamp, and this Lab Rule guide. Safety violations will not be tolerated.
    • Insubordination. Failure to perform your duties as outlined in your contract, in this Lab Rule guide, or verbally conveyed from WomanOfScience will result in immediate verbal warning (see above) or higher level discipline depending on history of insubordination.

This all sounds very strict and formal, but I think it is better than randomly firing people, which is what I felt like was my only recourse before. For each type of discipline that requires documentation, there are example letters with fill-in-the-blank regions to put the name and date and to fill in the offense. Examples can be found at your HR office and online.  Another note is that the written warning is a big step because it the last straw before termination/dismissal. For that step, you must have a lot of documentation. This is partly why you are documenting about your people (see last post), but also, you may need corroboration from others in the group.

Although this may feel like gossip or talking behind someone’s back, you need to gather this evidence. If someone keeps leaving the door to the -80C freezer open, you must find out who is doing it. If all fingers point to ParticularPerson, you must be able to find out to have a talk with ParticularPerson. Often other students in the group don’t want to rat out someone else, but you need to tell them that you cannot remedy the situation if you do not know the specifics. It is important that they feel comfortable telling you what is going on. Further, if you ask all the people in the lab, and 4/5 say it was ParticularPerson, but ParticularPerson says it was SomeoneElse or there isn’t an issue, then you have decent evidence that it was probably ParticularPerson doing the offensive activity.

Finally, different unions might have different rules for progressive discipline and the steps in the process. That being said, I have never once had a union-rep come to talk to me about this or tell me what the steps are. They are praying on your ignorance. If you fire a unionized person without using progressive discipline, and that person complains to the union, you could get in serious trouble and risk being sued by the union. Make sure you are aware of what the unions require.

So, what do you think? Going to try progressive discipline? It can really work to turn someone around and help you manage them better. It can also relieve you of guilt and stress because you have a rubric for getting rid of someone. You don’t have to sit with a terrible, lazy, nogoodnick in your research group waiting for the grant or contract to expire. You can take action and cover your butt at the same time. If you have other ideas, post or comment here. To get an email whenever I post, push the +Follow button.

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