Disciplinary Actions Mean It’s Time To Leave

Vic Napier, MBA

I’m sure we all know about disciplinary actions.  Most organizations have a hierarchy of aversive procedures they inflict on employees who break rules or do not follow procedures.  It happened to me once.  Well, more than once, but right now I’m only going to tell you about the first time.

Years ago I worked at a cannery.  Summertime is harvest season and things got so busy that we worked seven days a week, sometimes 10 or 12 hours a day.  We were routinely told that we could not get days off in the summer because our labor was vital to process the food that was brought from the fields. 

One day I did something wrong.  I forget now what it was, but I got a three day suspension.  Now, the idea behind a suspension is that official disapproval from management and social exclusion from our friends at work for three days served as a punishment.  It is expected that the miscreant will slink away so full of guilt and remorse that he or she will never again do whatever it was that earned them the suspension.  

Things turned out a little different in my case.  For the previous 11 weeks, I had worked overtime almost every day.  Along with everyone else I worked every weekend, and every holiday, sometimes up to 12 hours a day.  We had worked seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day for almost three months.  Most of us were students, young and strong, but we were all exhausted and looking forward to going back to school where we could rest.

My base pay was twice the minimum wage and I was regularly getting time and half, double time and sometimes double time and a half.  I was young, had a fat bank account, and the last time I had a day off was a vague memory.  But rules are rules and I needed to be punished.

So there I sat facing the Pant Manager, the Human Resources Director and the Union Representative, all of whom were well over forty.  I was old enough to drive, barely, but voting was still an event in my future.  I was scared and intimidated.  I was ashamed that I was getting so much attention from these important people for whatever bad thing I had done.

My transgression was described in detail, and I was reminded how important it was for me to be a responsible worker.  I was on the verge of tears.  Then my punishment was revealed.  The Human Resources Director locked me with a steely gaze and solemnly intoned my sentence, “You are suspended for three days.”

I couldn’t believe my ears!

“Three days?”, I said not believing I was getting three days off.

“Yes!  We don’t want you back for three days!”

I missed the social disapproval of the “we don’t want you back” part.  Maybe I just didn’t care.  Three days off in the middle of processing season!  I must be dreaming!  Could it be true?

“You’re kidding!  You’re serious?  Really?  Three days?”

I was ecstatic.  Three whole days that I could do whatever I wanted.  Gee, I could go to the coast!  Hey! I could ask the hot babe at the Circle K to go to the coast with me!  (As it turned out I did.)  I stood up, smiling, laughing.  Three whole days!


Up to that time I never had so much money in my bank account.

“Are you kidding?  After all the over time I’ve worked I’D PAY YOU FOR THREE DAYS OFF!”

I was standing there the very picture euphoria, grinning laughing, THANKING them for suspending me.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me!  Thank you all so much. Wow, three whole days!  This is great!  This is wonderful!”

The Human Resources Directors’ mouth was hanging open, as if she had something to say but couldn’t figure out just what.  She looked at the Plant Manager.  They both looked at the Union Representative.  The Union Representative looked back at them.  They all looked at me.  Nobody was saying anything except me, and I was standing there giddy with joy babbling away about how wonderful it was to be disciplined.

The Human Resources Director finally was able to formulate a sentence.

“You want to go for four days?”, she asked in what might have been intended to be a menacing tone.  Whatever her tone was, it was lost on me.

“Four days!  YES!  That puts me all the way through the weekend!  Four days!  Thank you.  Thank you all so much!” 

I was only 17 and I had no idea what to do, so I started lifting peoples’ limp hands from laps and desks and shaking them with both of mine, sincerely thanking them again and again as I backed out of the room. 

Nobody said a thing and I came back four days later with a tan and a vacation story that made me the envy of the whole plant.

So what’s the point?  Simple. My values were so far removed from the values of management that what they considered a punishment I welcomed as a reward.  That’s a pretty huge difference in perspectives.  But even when the difference between the values of an employee an employer are much closer the fundamental truth holds true – a disciplinary action is very often an indication that values about work are out of synch. 

If people hire you because they value you, and fire you because they don’t, a disciplinary action is a socially safe way to tell you that you are no longer valuable to the organization.   It is a message to reassess what you think is important about working, and to move to another job if what you think is important no longer consistent with what your employer thinks is important.

The thing that keeps us happy and content in any social context, (and make no mistake, work is a social context), is sharing the values of those around us.  It’s called culture.  If we are not comfortable with the cultural values of the group we are in we usually search for a new social cohort in which to immerse ourselves.  That’s why we leave home when we are young and live in adult communities when we get old.  It’s simply a matter of surrounding ourselves with others who share our views and values.

A disciplinary action is a formalized way of telling us that our behavior is not valued by the organization of which we are a part.  It is a message that we have not conformed to behavioral expectations that those around us accept.  We all make mistakes, but formal recognition of our mistakes is usually a sign of disconnection with the culture at a very basic level.

It means it’s time think about moving on to our next job.


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