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What companies can learn from Malema’s rise and fall

March 2012

Overlooking the little but simmering ill-disciplines, tolerating even abrasive language or behaviour may lead to even bigger trouble.

As we debate the Julius Malema’s rise and fall, I kept thinking about the "broken windows" theory once popularised by Harvard professors James Wilson and George Kelling.

The two academics taught us that if a broken window in a building is left unrepaired, sooner or later all the windows are broken, and so goes the neighbourhood.

“If broken windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside," the academics wrote in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.

"Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or break into cars," Wilson and Kelling added.

What Kelling and Wilson found was that the way to prevent vandalism - and thus more serious forms of crime and urban deterioration is to fix the broken windows and clean up the sidewalk.

That is why New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani put the theory to work by strictly enforcing laws against small crimes, thus bringing down the rate of crime in the Big Apple.

The Kelling and Wilson theory or philosophy applies to all facets of life and even the business environment. For the Malema saga it means that when we ignore the little niceties - tolerating coarse language or behaviour at home, in public, at work and within our organisations, whether governmental or non-governmental, we invite larger fractures in discipline and rule of law or acceptable way of life.

This applies in companies, big or small. Disciplining, reprimanding or otherwise correcting employees, whether low-level, middle-management, all the way to the CEO, is among the most difficult tasks of management. It is also among the most basic tasks, and among the most critical. You must do it, or else.

Unfortunately when most people hear the word "discipline" they think of a petulant child being scolded or spanked by their parent for something they did or didn't do.
We all know that the intent of every parent or manager is not to simply cause their child/employee pain, but rather to reinforce that the behaviour that got them in trouble does not continue.

Discipline is not an easy or pleasant task for anyone. That is why it is important to think of workplace discipline not as dishing out punishment, but as a form of coaching that will help shape a better employee.

Discipline in the workplace is a means by which supervisory personnel correct behavioural deficiencies and ensure adherence to established company rules. The purpose of discipline is to correct behaviour. It is not designed to punish or embarrass an employee.
It is important to educate people about the organisation's policies, rules and expected behaviours so that they understand how to comply, are able to monitor themselves and can do everything possible to meet expectations.

Often, a positive approach may solve the problem without having to discipline. However, if unacceptable behaviour is a persistent problem or if the employee is involved in a misconduct that cannot be tolerated, management should use discipline to correct the behaviour.

In the workplace however, what is often lost is we place less emphasis on the value of using disciplinary action as a teaching tool as we do with our own children.

After all, the word discipline comes from the word "disciple" and when translated from Latin means, "to teach." Thus the intent of discipline should ensure that the recipient sees the discipline as a learning tool rather than one which merely inflicts pain.

When properly used disciplinary action in the workplace is very effective in either correcting the problem behaviour or mustering the problem employee out of the workplace.

When there is a disciplinary issue, management should quickly address a difficult employee with a bad attitude, since such negativism is contagious and can have an impact on the entire office staff, creating a company-wide morale issue.

For example, if the employee is dressing inappropriately, let the person know that starting tomorrow, wearing jean shorts/halter tops/whatever, will not be permitted. This is easier to do if you already have a company dress code in writing, and the behaviour cited violated that code. If not, it's time to put it in writing for all to see, not just the individual who was called to task. Without a written policy, that individual could be justified in complaining that you're only "picking" on him.

The attributes and behaviours that classify a difficult employee are numerous. Among them: Late arrivals and early departures on a regular basis; unexcused excessive absenteeism; disrespectful, abusive, vulgar or rude language towards co-workers, managers and/or customers; poor attitude towards the company and/or co-workers; constant complaints, gossip or other disruptive behaviours that bring down employee moral and poor or unprofessional job performance and/or quality of work.

Examples of misconduct which could result in discipline include excessive tardiness, failure to notify of an absence, insubordination; dishonesty, and theft.

It is a pity that managers frequently avoid discipline in the misguided hope that the problem will go away if ignored. But it doesn't. In fact, more often than not, problems that are ignored only get worse as it happened with Malema if we all agree that he was an “employee” of the ANC and ANC Youth League.

Although it's difficult and stressful to discipline someone, you owe it to your organisation and the individual in question to do so. You don't do anyone any favours by allowing them to persist in behaviours that ultimately make you want to terminate their employment.

Fortunately many companies have progressive discipline approaches, the effective means of applying incremental levels of discipline to those who violate the rules of the workplace. In many cases, Level one may be a verbal caution for a minor offence; Level two may be a stern written warning for more serious or repeat violations. Level three would be reserved for very serious matters or repeated rule violations that may result in a suspension. Level four would be a hearing followed by possible employment dismissal.

A well-designed employee discipline programme can help mitigate problems. The programme should include, an effective hiring process accompanied by standardized job descriptions and applications to ensure only qualified candidates are considered.

The programme should also enjoy the support of the company leadership. Executives should always secure the advice and ongoing counsel of an attorney specialising in local labour law.
An employee manual giving guidelines such as policies on proper and improper attire, offensive behaviours, Internet and e-mail usage, and tardiness and absences is a crucial guideline in all cases. The manual should also outline the counselling, discipline and grievance processes. Once the manual is finalised, all employees should be required to provide written agreement to the terms outlined in the manual.

It is important that supervisors and managers should understand all of the behavioural policies and disciplinary procedures because they are often on the front lines of explaining and enforcing the programme. More importantly, management should be trained on coaching and counselling practices that are designed to help employees avoid running afoul of the discipline system.

Lastly companies should establish grievance procedures because employees may not always agree with a supervisor's version of events, and must be provided with a forum for disputing disciplinary actions.

It is important to understand that anyone can make mistakes, but it's a sign of good character to rectify mistakes and show improvement.

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