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Office discipline and the 'red hot stove rule'

Sunday, January 02, 2011


ONE of the most dreaded duties for any manager is disciplining an employee who has stepped out of line.

However, it is one that every manager must carry out. After all, every organisation, regardless of size, has rules and regulations that govern its operations, and anyone who breaches them must be held to account.

One disciplinary approach to use is one posited by Douglas McGregor: the "Red hot stove rule". The red hot stove rule is comprised of a set of principles for effectively disciplining staff and which is analogous to touching a hot stove.

The principles on which the rule is operated are as follows.

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* Burns immediately.

When you touch a hot stove, one instantly feels the pain caused by the heat. In the same way, when an employee commits an infraction, the disciplinary action taken must be swift so that the offender will make a direct association between the offence and the punishment meted out. The longer the period of time between the two events, the less impactful it will be. It is important, though, that due process be followed and justice not be compromised in the interest of expediency.

* Advance warning

As you extend your hand to the open flame, you will feel an intense heat that will cause you to recoil, in order to avoid being burnt. In the same way, the employee must be forewarned regarding the action to be taken in the event of an infraction. He must be made aware of the organisation's rules and sanctions that will follow unacceptable behaviour. It is hoped that having been forewarned, the employee will avoid breaking the rules. However, if having been warned he, nonetheless, commits an offence, he will be prepared to deal with the consequences.

* Consistency in punishment

If you were to place your hand on a hot stove today, you would get burned. If you did it again tomorrow, you would get the same result. It should be the same with disciplinary action once an infraction has been committed. Inconsistency will send mixed messages to employees and will affect the manager's credibility.

* Burns impartially

Whoever touches the hot stove will experience the effect of the heat, regardless of age, colour, class or creed. In much the same way, disciplinary action must be taken against any and all who break the rules. The manager must, however, punish the rule violation and not tarnish the reputation of the employee. All employees who commit an infraction are expected to be punished accordingly.

The hot stove rule, though rigid in its approach, does seem to protect the supervisor/manager from being accused of bias while engendering in workers respect for the rules of the organisation.

Wayne Powell is a human resource professional. He may be contacted at crisscounsellor@yahoo.com.

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