Taking the Pain Out of Disciplining Public Safety Employees

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership.

No discussion on supervision in public safety is complete without touching on the often-sensitive subject of discipline. Although disciplining public safety employees is certainly not a supervisor’s favorite part of the job, the proper administration of discipline is necessary to maintain the operational tempo of any organization. Employees on the receiving end of discipline generally perceive the process in a negative way; however, in the words of John C. Maxwell, “Motivation gets you going but discipline keeps you growing.”

Defining Discipline

Often used to ensure compliance or conformity, discipline denotes a form of ethics or mental training. It’s an educational process that organizations use to train and mold employees to gain a desired outcome or level of performance. When used correctly, discipline can also be a process of socializing employees to accept and follow the rules and values of the agency.

For any organization to operative effectively there must be some form of order, some standardization of processes or rules, and some measure of control to tie them all together. Discipline is part of that measure of managerial control, which:

  • Sets standards and rules of conduct.
  • Develops mechanisms for detecting violations of standards and rules of conduct.
  • Provides for the receipt of misconduct complaints (internal affairs function).
  • Establishes responsibility for handling complaints or internal investigations.
  • Provides for temporary and emergency administrative suspensions.
  • Sets policies and procedures for investigating, charging, resolving, and imposing sanctions, while also establishing an appeals process.

Types of Discipline

Progressive punishment is the most traditional form of disciplining public safety employees. It’s punitive in nature and involves a system of escalating penalties that occur with repeated infractions. The system relies on recognition that repeated infractions are punished with escalating penalties up to and including termination. This type of discipline is commonly viewed in a negative way by employees, primarily because the types of punishment include everything from an oral reprimand to loss of salary or termination. While this approach is sometimes the only method available, it can be ineffective. Kelli Johnson, the previous deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, notes how “he key to effective discipline is the appropriate balance between punishment and education.”

Resist the temptation to ignore problems because they are uncomfortable or because you don’t like conflict. Avoiding known issues is the same as condoning them.

Some of the limitations to progressive punishment include:

  • The burden for improvement is left almost entirely to the employee without much responsibility being held by agency leadership.
  • Elements of discipline are sometimes viewed by the rank and file as a way to simply get rid of people.
  • Supervisors are placed in a position of providing only negative feedback about an employee’s performance.
  • Leaders tend to let an employee’s problems drag on until the problem becomes so serious there is little hope of resolving it.
  • Leadership incorrectly attributes a problem to a poor attitude, low morale, or some other state of mind (treating the symptoms rather than the root causes).
  • The employee appears as the sole source of the problem.

Corrective discipline involves training used to correct deficiencies without punishing the employee. It is constructive and developmental in nature. The intent is to gain compliance because the employee wants to cooperate and improve. An example includes remedial training on a process or procedure. Corrective discipline is based upon the assumption that the employee’s work will be improved by actions taken by the supervisor. Such improvement is supported by the supervisor and the employee will strive to receive more positive reinforcement.

Advantages include:

  • Both the employee and the supervisor share responsibility for correcting the inappropriate behavior.
  • Supervisors are better able to specifically identify poor performance and typically work to resolve the problem as soon as it appears.
  • Supervisors make their expectations clear to the employee and are obligated to share when the employee is meeting expectations.
  • Supervisors are better equipped to measure employee performance since there is an expectation of following up to ensure compliance and understanding.

Ineffective Discipline

When discipline is administered ineffectively, inconsistently, or purely as punishment, there is an adverse impact on both employees and leaders, which can ultimately lead to:

  • Loss of employee respect for agency leadership.
  • Loss of employee trust and increased hostility towards agency leadership.
  • Increased employee dissatisfaction resulting in decreased productivity.
  • An increased number of employee grievances.
  • Increased employee turnover.

It’s also interesting to note that discipline administered incorrectly or unfairly in the eyes of your employees will likely result in poor perceptions about the entire disciplinary process. Signs your organization’s discipline process is ineffective include:

  • Poor morale
  • Lackadaisical attitude toward the job, leadership, the organization, and the public
  • Lack of direction or purpose
  • Inattention to duty
  • Additional violations of organizational rules and regulations
  • Disregard for the customer service aspect of the job

Effective Discipline

There are some simple requirements that can help an organization use discipline more effectively. Certainty of punishment can be a strong deterrent only if the punishment is sure to come. Swiftness of punishment is another factor. Lengthy periods of investigation tend to lead to bitterness, rumors, and hard feelings. Often, the longer it takes for punishment to occur, the more the affected employee is likely to feel the punishment is more personal in nature. The punishment can become person-oriented, rather than behavior-oriented.

Discipline administered incorrectly or unfairly in the eyes of your employees will likely result in poor perceptions about the entire disciplinary process.

Fairness and impartiality is another important factor since punishment must be viewed by the individual, as well as other employees, as fair and equitable. Employees must be held to the same standards and levels of accountability. Finally, consistency of punishment can be one of the biggest frustrations in an organization where the inconsistent application of punishment occurs. Punishment should fit the offense and have ranges, depending on the type of infraction committed by the employee. The totality of the circumstances should be taken into consideration when making decisions about discipline. Some agencies even use a matrix, which establishes set penalties and timelines depending on the infraction. This also adds a level of objectivity to the imposition of discipline, which can help mitigate potential fallout over a mistaken belief that the discipline was meted out capriciously.

Whatever the method, it’s also important to conduct some type of internal assessment to determine whether your organization’s disciplinary process is effective. Review statistics and involve agency stakeholders from internal affairs, training, and leadership when analyzing data. Johnson notes how:

The effectiveness of employee discipline is too often measured by a simple tally of the number of sanctions imposed or disciplinary actions taken. The measure of effectiveness, however, should be expanded beyond frequency to include a qualitative inquiry in why disciplinary actions are taken and how such action results in improved job-related performance or behavior. Once discovered, wrongdoing must be addressed, but it’s the nature of the disciplinary response that indicates true effectiveness.


Employee problems are best corrected in their infancy. Avoiding these issues will just cause the situation to worsen. Allowing unacceptable employee behavior to go unchecked or uncorrected is not only unfair to the employee involved, but also to the other employees and the organization. The supervisor is the first stop in correcting employee deficiencies before future problems emerge.

Resist the temptation to ignore problems because they are uncomfortable or because you don’t like conflict. Avoiding known issues is the same as condoning them. As a leader, you have the responsibility of communicating organizational values to your subordinates, and disciplining public safety employees when they miss the mark is a necessary and essential part of these processes. Whether it’s corrective discipline or progressive punishment, professional public safety organizations ensure accountability among employees while providing essential services to the public. The better an organization is at policing itself, the more respected it will be in the eyes of both internal and external stakeholders.

In the words of Henry Kaiser, “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” If you’re a leader, it’s time to get dressed and go to work!


  1. Johnson, K. (2000). Employee Discipline Is Not Just for Punishment. Journal of Healthcare Compliance. July/August. Available: Ebscohost.
Rex Scism

CAPTAIN REX M. SCISM (Ret.) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.

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