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Oops, Wrong Button. Do We Discipline for the Mistake or the Effect of the Mistake?

In the wake of last week's "oops," when a Hawaii civil defense employee sent out an Emergency Alert to those on the island which stated: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL" it's a good time to discuss disciplinary issues in the workplace—both for mistakes and for blatant conduct.

Here we find ourselves with a situation in which an employee, attempting to send out an internal test alert on Saturday morning accidentally chose the option "Missile alert" from a drop-down menu, as opposed to "Test missile alert." It took 38 minutes for the error to be corrected and in the meantime panic across the island ensued. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has publicly stated it is working to fix the problem regarding how easy it was to make the mistake. Currently, the employee who pressed the button has been temporarily reassigned pending the outcome of the investigation.

A few key things that any organization should keep in mind when disciplining employees:

  • Do We Have a Policy? What does our policy handbook or other internal documents proscribe will happen in a situation such as this? Are we bound by terms under a Collective Bargaining Agreement? Do we have an employment contract with the individual employee at issue? If we have a progressive disciplinary policy do we have a provision that allows us to skip the progressive aspects of the policy and move straight to termination? Employers will be judged on past practices if the termination is ever challenged. Accordingly, making sure that the practice in the current situation is similar to what your policies provide will be helpful in the long run.
  • What is the Context? Does this employee have a history of skirting the rules? Has the individual previously been disciplined for similar behavior—whether performance-based, attendance-based, or pure attitude issues? If so, have we documented such history and does the employee have knowledge that these things are issues?
  • Are we Being Consistent and Fair? Would we take the same actions with all employees or is this individual somehow key to the organization and accordingly we give the individual more leeway than others? When we ask if the outcome is fair, we are looking at a lot of different factors—including whether the organization itself carries any of the burden for the issue at hand. You may ask, does the "punishment fit the crime"? This can be through a review of lost revenues, public relations concerns, or simple company culture and morale.
  • Document, Document, Document. Make sure that you document the process. No matter your determination—whether a PIP, written warning, or termination, make sure each of the decision makers have verbalized the reason for the decision and you have recorded these reasons for the future should you ever need to refer back to support the decision.

Discipline is never easy—for the person giving it or the person receiving it. There are steps, however, that employers can take to minimize the risks associated with the disciplinary process, especially when we are dealing with high-risk employees. For more information on best practices concerning discipline, contact a member of Verrill Dana's Labor and Employment Practice Group.

Topics: HR Best Practices