Pushing back on discipline - Emmett J. Nolan

Pushing back on discipline - Emmett J. Nolan

An article about fighting back against write-ups at work.

Chances are we all will inevitably have a run-in with the disciplinary procedure at work. In these moments, it’s natural to feel targeted personally. Often times the warnings are sprung on you by surprise, there may be multiple managers in the meeting with you, and the process doesn’t resemble how you thought the progressive disciplinary procedure worked.

Mistakes are inevitable; we’re not robots. Since our livelihood is at risk in these moments, when we have to encounter discipline it’s important that it’s carried out in a manner that is transparent and equitable. Additionally, we should all have the ability to state our defense to the accusations that are brought forward in a disciplinary action. Too often management plays the role of judge, jury, prosecution, and jailor without our side of the story ever considered. In fact, while my company’s manager’s handbook states that during any disciplinary meeting with a worker, a manager is required to have a supervisor or another manager present; alternatively when workers request a witness or an advocate within our disciplinary meetings, our requests are routinely denied.

At my orientation after I was hired, I remember the general manager telling me about the company’s progressive disciplinary procedure. Some could interpret “progressive discipline” to mean an enlightened and compassionate method of remedying negative behavior or actions, while others understand it to mean simply an orderly fashion of discipline that moves step-by-step; when I first witnessed the manner in which my employer issues out discipline, the experience demonstrated to me that neither interpretation of “progressive” proved fitting. Despite being told in my orientation that the course of discipline would follow an order of a 1) warning, 2) final warning and 3) termination, what I witnessed then and repeatedly over the years looked unpredictable and subjective.

Less than a year on the job while closing one day, my co-worker was brought into a meeting in the office with a couple managers. When he came back to the floor, I asked him what it was all about, wondering why he was back there for so long. He told me that he was being demoted from his position. I was shocked. As the person who trained me and who I worked with most often, I found him to be on top of all of his responsibilities. I didn’t understand how he could be demoted. His one year review was to be in a two weeks and since he had not received any prior warning, we agreed that the demotion was complete bullshit.

While the two of us had worked together for a while and we respected each other’s work ethic, we didn’t know each other very much beyond the shop floor. I could tell he was still reeling from the news, unsure of what to make of it all. I believe my initial response was, “That’s fucked up,” and he responded “Yeah, right?” In that moment, with a mere five word exchange, I felt we established a common trust.

At the pub after work, he explained to me how management went about the demotion; telling him that his personal life was distracting him from his job. The general manager brought up a handful of incidents that were largely beyond his control and which management had already discussed with him. He told me that he wasn’t able to defend his actions or give his account of the accusations ascribed to him. Additionally, they told him that in order to save him the embarrassment of being demoted, they would do him the benefit of saying he chose to step down. This seemed to be a very disingenuous offer, because it protected management from any scrutiny of its disciplinary action. My co-worker felt like our company was trying to force him to quit so that they wouldn’t have to fire him and, thus, the hassle of unemployment.

Together we discussed what could be done. I told him I’d do whatever I could do to get his position back. We both thought at least four other co-workers would be supportive, too. We made plans to meet with all of our co-workers outside of work either together or one-on-one. I asked him, “Do you still want to work here? Do you still want your position?” He said he did. This seemed like a necessary prerequisite for taking action. So, we determined that he should compose a letter stating his defense to the accusations in his disciplinary form, as well as stating that he wants his job back. I proposed that our supportive co-workers and myself could draft up a letter stating that we wanted him to be reinstated to his former position.

Through our one-on-ones, we secured the support of five of the seven members of our work crew. Within these meetings, what proved valuable in motivating our co-workers into action was making public our co-worker’s disciplinary form. Management is adamant about keeping these confidential. No doubt, because it proved the most convincing piece of the conversation because all of the workers we showed it to found it to be unjust. One of the two who didn’t sign agreed with us on the issue, but was too afraid to sign.

A meeting was arranged for the purpose of drafting the letter we’d present and to decide how we’d go about delivering the letter. The process of drafting the letter was a collaborative effort in which a group of us brought our ideas and decided on the letter’s overall tone. As our initial response to the demotion –the first collective action done within our department– and since we thought at that time that management might actually listen to us, the letter was a request more than a demand. In addition to the worker’s reinstatement, we called for his “Final Warning” to be changed to a “Warning” and for clarification regarding the disciplinary procedure.

We agreed that three of us should present the letter to our manager. A store Lead and myself would state the reason for the letter and what we wanted to see happen, while our demoted co-worker would present his letter and state that he wanted his position back. Whether or not the letter got his job back, all of us who signed felt certain that our letter was the right thing to do. We all believed that the disciplinary action taken was unjust and contradicted how we were told in our orientation discipline would be used.

Within our one-on-ones and in our group meetings prior to the letter delivery, we discussed how we thought management would respond to our action. Since none of us had ever done anything like this before, we were uncertain as to what reaction to expect. I told folks that management would likely try to meet with us individually to inquire about who was responsible for organizing the letter. We agreed to say that we all were a part of the letter planning and if managers wanted to meet with us about it, that we would need to meet as a group since this was an issue that affects all of us. Beyond delivering the letter and being prepared for meetings with managers, we didn’t make any further plans.

On the Monday after the demotion, we delivered the letter as planned. In the hours before the delivery, all of us had a small case of the nerves. The three of us delivered the letter to our direct manager and took turns speaking regarding why we were there. We stated that we wanted our co-worker reinstated. The manager expressed how great it was that we showed so much support for our co-worker and she stated that it wasn’t her decision to demote him. She thanked us for the letter and we left to debrief at the bar, the three of us feeling both relieved and empowered.

It didn’t take long to receive a response from management. The next day I had the day off, but my two co-workers were both at work and both were called into meetings with managers regarding the letters. Both workers tried asking for another co-worker to be present with them but management refused. Now, it seemed that management proved not to be so appreciative of our letter. The Lead was requested to re-read their job description out-loud to multiple managers in their meeting. During this rather degrading experience, managers emphasized the need for them to “support managements’ decisions at all times” otherwise maybe they weren’t fit for the position.

In his meeting, management told our demoted co-worker their decision was final and that he wouldn’t get his position back. However, his “Final Warning” was changed to a “Warning.” When I returned to work, I was pulled aside by my manager and told the news that my co-worker wouldn’t get his position back and that she “hoped that I still wanted to work here.” My manager also stated that I should not have involved one of our newly hired employees, who had only started at our store a couple weeks earlier, but who was enthusiastic with her support for the letter.

Despite our effort to be prepared for management’s response, the lack of a follow-up plan and the affect management’s intimidation had on co-workers left us in a position to take no further action. However, while we didn’t succeed in securing reinstatement we were able to accomplish three things of significance. First, our co-worker’s “Final Warning” was reduced to a “Warning”. Without our collective letter, this would never have happened and he would still be sitting one small step away from “Termination”.

Second, no one would apply for or demoted co-worker’s old position and as a result management decided that our store didn’t need another Lead. Our store would be the only one in the company without a second Lead for 2.5 years. Why is this significant to the letter? Because without a replacement to take his position, our co-worker’s hours were safe and he wouldn’t have to struggle to get by with fewer shifts or hours.

Finally, management’s disciplinary action sought to alienate our co-worker, make him feel uncomfortable and unsupported at work, and goad him into quitting. The direct and visible support he received from his co-workers demonstrated that the folks he worked the closest with appreciated and respected him as a worker and were looking out for him.

Prior to this event, the culture within our department was often adversarial: openers versus closers. The company helped foster this adversarial culture by instructing us to to take our concerns about each other to management first and then responding by either 1) not taking any action, 2) dismissing our concerns, or 3) taking action that left both employees feeling like the issue was unresolved.

The action proved an important catalyst in changing the culture of our work group. Presenting a letter to our bosses challenging their power is not something any of us do everyday; but for us it’s definitely something we’ll never forget. The action established a trust amongst the six workers who wrote, signed, and delivered the letter. Though we came from a variety of backgrounds, the action succeeded in building relationships amongst us that went beyond just seeing each other as the moving part of the workplace. We began to see each other as people who deserved respect. Following this action, a series of future events would dramatically transform the culture of the work group into one in which workers communicated directly to each other about issues, worked together to address them, and demonstrated that we had each other’s backs.

Originally posted: June 26, 2013 at Recomposition