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Managing Discipline: A Systematic Approach

Managing Discipline: A Systematic Approach V S Mahesh Hard-nosed line managers tend to take a trial-and-error, case by case approach or a confrontational approach to managing discipline. Both approaches
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Managing Discipline: A Systematic Approach V S Mahesh Hard-nosed line managers tend to take a trial-and-error, case by case approach or a confrontational approach to managing discipline. Both approaches fail to provide a predictable course of action or planned results. A systematic approach can be taken, argues Mahesh, and details the steps involved. They include quantifying the problem, establishing norms, sharing widely the problem perspective, identifying individual acts of violation, acting kindly but firmly on each violation, and, finally, zeroing in on hard-core offenders for disciplinary action. Mahesh illustrates the approach using the example of the Kitchen Stewarding Department in the Taj group of hotels. Following this approach, the group cut unauthorized absenteeism from 10 per cent to less than 2.5 per cent in just six months and has maintained it at that level for over four years now. V S Mahesh is Vice President, Human Resources, in The Indian Hotels Company Ltd., Bombay, owners of the Taj Group of Hotels. Line managers often dismiss management theories and settle on experience-based situational management. This tendency is particularly acute in soft areas such as human resources management. The net result is to live dangerously and precariously because results are unpredictable. In the reactive trial and error approach, action can sometimes be rash. Personnel managers get relegated to the background providing support to line management. An opportunity is not created for a proactive and systematic problem solving approach It is possible to approach human resource problems systematically through a priori statements, predictive postures, anticipatory manoeuvres, and pro-active steps. As an illustration, I provide below the details of the approach we took at the Taj group of hotels to control unauthorized absenteeism. Our experience shows that sound internal practices and systematic steps to instil discipline lead to positive results. Erring employees fall in line arid accept the norms of discipline that were established. Prompt counselling and involvement of trade union leaders in setting up and monitoring the procedures for correcting undesirable behaviour result in company-wide understanding of what is fair for both management and workers. Management's approach gains credibility among employees. Line managements and personnel departments gain proactive control of the problem. The Taj Group consists of 20 hotels and flight catering establishments employing 9,000 persons spread over 15 cities in ten states and five union territories. It has almost all types of unions and is subject to the laws and procedures of various labour offices, Industrial and Labour Courts, High Courts and the Supreme Court. A Survey of Large Corporations Unauthorized absenteeism of staff was a serious problem in the late 70s and the early 80s. In 1983, the Tata Management Training Centre was asked to conduct a survey on absenteeism among major corporations in India. The survey showed that the average mandays lost due to unauthorized absenteeism was slightly above 10 per cent for major corporations across the country. The Taj Group of Hotels was in the same boat. That same year, we decided to make a concerted attempt to solve this problem. Within six months, we were able to bring absenteeism down to less than 2.5 per cent. What is more, we have kept it at that figure for over four years now across the Group. To state that differently, compared with an average employee in Indian corporations who stays away from work unauthorizedly for over 26 days a year without getting into any problem, an average employee in the Taj Group does not remain unauthorizedly absent for more than six days a year! At a saving of 20 days per employee, the total saving over 9,000 employees amounts to a recurring 1.5 million manhours per year. Kitchen Stewarding Department How was this achieved in a short span of six months? We took 12 identifiable steps, each as important as the other and connected with the rest in their sequencing and timing. I illustrate them with the Kitchen Stewarding Department of one of our larger hotels. Kitchen Stewarding has to lift, carry and potwash. It does the dirty work in a hotel. Any absenteeism problem there has an immediate impact on customer service. Step 1: Quantify Absenteeism and Set a Target 18 The initiative to quantify was taken by the Human Resources Management Department. We began by helping line management set clear and unambiguous targets for improvement. The Kitchen Stewarding Department had 128 permanent employees doing work of an unskilled nature. The departmental head expected that at least 100 of these employees should report to work each day. He had planned the work accordingly. The average attendance, however, was approximately only 80. In his mind, therefore, the problem was quantified as 20 per cent absenteeism. We, helped requantify the prevalent level of absenteeism as. outlined, in Ensuring correct manning is a crucial Step. If a department is not adequately manned, the departmental head is forced to deny legitimate leave, use overtime or hire casuals. Other problems of far greater consequence will arise in the process. For example, to overcome problems from undermanning, casuals are hired frequently and overtime payments are made regularly. These are cancerous diseases that have devoured several corporations. They make a mockery of all attempts to discipline and control. At the ' same time, overmanning can lead to slackness, low productivity and bad work habits ' that are hard to reverse, Hence a correct manning on the rolls is crucial. Step 3: Provide Personnel Officer Support We then released a properly trained Personnel Officer almost full time to work closely with the departmental head. He assisted the department in implementing the rest of the steps taken to tackle the problem of absenteeism. The Personnel Officer was told that his main target was to legitimize for himself the role of a friend, philosopher and guide to the staff so that he would be in a position to: respond sensitively and counsel staff assist the department head based on an intimate knowledge of the staff. Step-4: Simplify Procedures for Taking Leave The Manager, the Personnel Officer, the union representatives and the staff decided participatively on the norms for availing leave. Leave forms were eliminated. A simple permanent card was made for each employee. As the cards were constantly updated, both the employee and the manager could see at a glance the past record and leave balance of the employee. While explaining to the staff the process of applying for leave, the Manager and the Personnel Officer highlighted the following consequences of unplanned absence of an individual staff member: the staff suffered individually as some had to be denied legitimate leave and were made to work extra hours, double shifts and so on. Both the Union Committee and the majority of the staff willingly agreed to plan their leave ahead of time and, in the case of emergency, inform one of a set of designated persons in the department. This step bears emphasis. In a continuous process industry, where work goes on 24 hours a day and seven days a week, unless a set of designated persons is identified, delinquent employees can get away with the excuse of having telephoned or sent word at a time when the individual's boss was not around! Step 5: Identify Habitual Absentees The next step was to identify employees who had been unauthorizedly absent on more than three occasions for more than a total of 15 days during the previous 12 month period. Legally speaking, a habitual absentee is one who unauthorizedly absents himself for more than 10 days on the whole on three or more separate occasions during the previous 12 month period. There were 22 such employees in this category in the Kitchen Stewarding Department. Of these, two were cases of ill health. These two employees had stayed on in their native villages. They had neither the ESI nor the company doctor's certificates to substantiate their claim of ill health. We established that these were genuine cases using several methods, including visits to their villages by officers. That left a balance of 20 employees who were primarily responsible for high absenteeism in the department. Step 6: Prepare Case Files A case file was made for each of the 20 habitual absentee employees, recording the dates of their unauthorized absence, reasons they gave, however flimsy, and any action, including verbal reprimands, that the management had taken. the organization suffered due to poor work output, which in turn directly lowered customer satisfaction Vol.-13, No. 3, July-September absentees was called individually to the Manager's cabin. The Manager and the Personnel Officer presented him his record, speaking evenly and without rancour. The employee was told that his record was among the worst in the department and that the management was eager to help him improve. The manager also communicated the fact that top management had decided to take a sterner view of such absenteeism and that the employee should take care in future. He was advised that if he wanted to remain absent again, he must telephone either the Manager, the Personnel Officer or one of the three Shift Supervisors and seek permission. If his reasons were genuine, he would be granted special leave; otherwise, he would be specifically told that he was not permitted leave and that he would be expected to report to work. Step 8: Daily Follow-Up The eighth, and possibly the most important, step was to announce that the Manager and the Personnel Officer would devote their time between 3 p m and 4pm every day (a time chosen by the Manager to coincide with the shift change), to exclusively deal with all those who had remained unauthorizedly absent the previous day. On the first few days, the Manager and the Personnel Officer were persuaded to psyche themselves into believing and accepting whatever excuses were given. However, if any of the 20 had absented without permission, he was to be pulled up for not telephonically requesting permission. This daily counselling period was strictly adhered to so that all employees knew that any employee abstaining from work on any day without permission would be sitting face to face with the Manager the next afternoon having to personally explain his absence. Half the absenteeism problem was solved by just this discipline on the part of management. Employees who still had the basic sense of decency, and did not wish to lie ever so often, began to regulate their attendance automatically. Step 9: Focus on the Hard Core 30 There were still employees who -had not shown any improvement. Most of them had a record of at least a dozen occasions of unauthorized absence during the previous 12 month period, the total number of days of absence exceeding 50 in each case. For a second time, we focused on the hard core unauthorized absentee. Step 10: Daily Counselling of the Hard Core We began to counsel each of the hard-core absentees. The Personnel Officer, a trained professional, got each in an informal situation like the cafeteria, locker room, or recreation room and attempted to help each identify the root cause for absenteeism and, thereafter, to resolve to tackle it. Two cases 'were due to alcoholism. They were helped through Alcoholics Anonymous. One case was due to heavy debts. He was helped with a short-term loan to overcome it. Another case was due to the curious problem of marital jealousy and was dealt with appropriately. The union representatives were brought into the picture again at this stage to elicit their cooperation in counselling the employees. Step 11: Tackling the 'Kernel' Simultaneously with the tenth step, the eleventh step was initiated to tackle the five who were remaining absent because they felt that the management was too weak to really do anything. These five employees constituted what may be described as the hard 'kernel' of the problem. They were taken to task severely during the daily afternoon sessions to begin with alone and later in the presence of their friends and wellwishers whoever was likely to save them before disciplinary action was taken against them. The union representative was called in and explained to that if the employee did not improve his attendance record, he would be in serious trouble. These sessions were recorded with witnesses and the employee concerned was asked to countersign. Whenever the employee refused, warning letters were sent by registered post to his permanent address. Very soon, it became apparent to everyone that the remaining five the kernel of the absenteeism problem in the Kitchen Stewarding Department Vikalpa were targets of concentrated management counselling and warnings. Step 12: Disciplinary Proceedings and Action When the time for the twelfth step of disciplinary proceedings came, there were hardly any employees who felt that management had been unjust. By itself the twelfth step is absurdly simple. Conducting of a departmental enquiry into the alleged misconduct of habitual absenteeism is easy when the timekeeping has been done correctly by the Personnel Department. Backed by periodic warning letters and notes, we established the fact that the five employees, constituting the 'kernel' of the problem, had remained habitually and unauthorizedly absent. We found that the 'kernel' members remained unauthorizedly absent even when departmental enquiry was on. This fact was also recorded in the enquiry proceedings. One of the lessons we learnt was that it is good not to suspend an employee before or pending an enquiry into habitual absenteeism. For, the process of enquiry, including serving of notices and letters, is much easier when the charge-sheeted employee is attending work and is available for communication. Besides, there is no point in suspending, or refusing permission for an employee to come to work, when the charge is that he does not come to work as expected. It was clear to all employees from the back-up record generated by the steps described above, and the enquiry report establishing the guilt of the delinquent absentees, that management was both fair and legally correct in dismissing the services of habitual absentees. While doing so, we made it a point to publicize why the employee had been dismissed, including the fact that the employee had not responded to many attempts at counselling by many different parties. In the case of the Kitchen Stewarding Department, we had to dismiss only two employees; the rest had learnt to adhere to the norms of discipline that were expected in the organization. The approach used in other departments and regions was the same. Once we have achieved the desired norm, the effort to maintain the level of absenteeism at or below that level is essentially the same: repeated action and keeping up the pressure while being responsive and kind to occasional problems of individual employees. Guidelines for Managing Discipline I have picked habitual absenteeism in a particular department as an example of discipline management. Can this approach be used to deal with other discipline problems? I believe so. Even such intractable problems such as malingering, talking back and poor quality of work can be tackled using a systematic approach. I give below a set of guidelines that may be useful in managing discipline: A quantitative measure of the problem should be examined and unambiguous norms should be established. The norms should be made known to all through participative discussions, consensus should be gained on the extent of the problem and the need for corrective action. Unfortunately, most personnel professionals do not quantify the problem properly. Arrive at a methodology for solving the problem, through participation of all concerned. There should be sufficient give and take in this process, without stretching the norms, right from the beginning. This is the stage when the rules of the game are set and accepted, including who the umpires would be. Get the Personnel Department to play its role right from the beginning. The prime emphasis of the Personnel Department should be to encourage and counsel employees to voluntarily adhere to norms. Only when all such efforts fail should the emphasis be shifted to initiation and conduct of disciplinary proceedings. Only as the last recourse should the Personnel Officer act as the policeman. Line management and the Personnel Department should demonstrate that they hold the norms seriously. This can be achieved through effective training of line supervisors and managers and strict follow-up by the Personnel Department. The timing and immediacy of disciplinary counselling is the key to prevent mole hills from growing into mountains. 'Nipping in the bud' is a cliche worth repeating in the context of discipline. Vol. 13, No. 3, July-September Supervisory development programmes must train supervisors on how to spot early, and deal with, any transgression of disciplinary norms. While the first reprimand, and even the second, ought to be in the privacy of the manager's cabin, subsequent reprimands should progressively become more and more public, till finally all the friends, relatives, well-wishers and union representatives are collectively counselling the delinquent employee against transgression of norms. At all stages, the objective of reprimands must be to correct and not to humiliate. The Personnel Officer has to be seen as playing a counsellor's role, trying his very best to dissuade the employee from continuing his erring ways. Management of discipline is the prerogative of management. To retain that prerogative, management must voluntarily set for itself regulatory controls, including legitimate trade union intervention. Trade union leaders must be involved in setting up the procedures for correcting x undesirable behaviour and, equally importantly, in deciding and accepting clearly the 'point of no return' in the system. Trade union leaders are interested in playing a visible role of defending the legitimate rights of employees. They have to be given sufficient advance notice, time, and elbow room to play such a role in the initial stages. As long as they have such a role, most of them will support the management in its ultimate action of dismissal in a chronic case. The majority of staff should be convinced from live examples that line management and Personnel Department are doing their very best to help employees get over discipline problems like overcoming a disease. Employees who have successfully fought alcoholism through Alcoholics Anonymous or have overcome their economic problems of overborrowing should be made examples of how the root cause can be overcome, without making a public relations gimmick out of them. Hard core offenders should be zeroed upon quickly. All energies should be focused on them. For very large organizations, there is no other way than to punish the worst offenders, after providing sufficient chances for improvement. The rest of the employees quite easily find ways of accepting and adhering to norms of discipline. Once a chargesheet is issued and a departmental enquiry is initiated, it must be clear to all that a point of no return has been reached. If the Enquiry Officer holds that the charges are proven, commensurate disciplinary action must be taken, including, if warranted, dismissal from service. The union leaders, involved in the process for saving the employee from such a state, ought to get convinced that as far as the management is concerned, no compromise is possible at that stage, except perhaps conversion of dismissal into voluntary resignation in the presence of a conciliation officer. This is to help the, dismissed employee, in special cases, to escape the stigma of dismissal and retain the benefits of retrenchment compensati
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