In a supervisory role, don't begin your professional career by tarnishing your reputation or causing employees to wonder if you're a fair boss by the way you handle disciplinary action. If you're not a supervisor, be upfront with your boss if you think the disciplinary action you got is unfair or if you're the only one being disciplined for your actions when other employees don't get so much as a verbal warning. Being called on the carpet is bad enough, without adding discrimination on top of corrective action.
You're not in school and supervisors aren't your parents and teachers, so "punishment" in the workplace isn't exactly the best way to describe corrective action, progressive discipline, constructive feedback or performance improvement counseling. But whatever your employer calls it, the actual intent should be to help employees attain higher performance levels or eliminate workplace behaviors that impede productivity and disrupt the work environment. Every workplace needs some form of employee coaching and tools such as performance appraisals and evaluations, but they have to be fair about using them.
Workplace discrimination is illegal, but when the discrimination involves discipline or punishment, it turns into humiliation. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act are a few of the federal laws that prohibit discriminatory employment practices. The laws say that equal employment opportunity goes beyond filling out an application; it begins when you first express some interest in the job and doesn't end until your working relationship with the company ends. So performance management is part of the company's duty to be fair in all of its employment practices.
Discrimination in workplace disciplinary action needn't be based on disability, national origin, race, religion or sex. Supervisors with biased opinions are misusing their authority to administer -- or, to not administer -- disciplinary action based on personal relationships or biased perceptions of employees who report to them. Human resources leaders warn supervisors about conducting biased performance appraisals or carrying out disciplinary action just because they don't like someone. For example, a supervisor who doesn't give constructive feedback to her employees because they all graduated from the same school is guilty of using personal bias. It might not be illegal, but it's just as discriminatory as a supervisor who hands out more written warnings to female workers than male workers because of the boys' club mentality.
Then there's unintentional bias that you might be accused of if you're in charge. Let's face it, in a "man's world" or even a male-dominated field, there will be times when a female leader is challenged. The workplace traditions of women in support roles still exist. Manage your employees fairly, without doling out disciplinary warnings based on who respects you more as a boss. Female workers have different expectations for their female bosses, according to a June 2013 article on Salon.com where the title says it all: "Women Expect Female Bosses to be Team Players." Avoid letting gender stereotypes and expectations based on gender dictate how you provide corrective action. Administer discipline based on job performance and workplace behaviors -- that includes men and women alike.
Before you fill out a disciplinary action form, ask yourself if you would discipline any employee who reports to you for the same mistake or infraction. Or look at your previous disciplinary counseling with employees for the same type of action. And if you're part of the staff, look at whether other employees have been disciplined for the same thing. When in doubt, go to your human resources department and ask for help in resolving an issue that might escalate if you just let it go.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.