“Kayla, we don’t want to give this employee the performance improvement plan (PIP) we drafted. I know they can’t pass this PIP. You need to go to this employee and convince them to take a severance agreement instead,” a global sales VP once told me.
I had never been asked to do something like this in my career, so I paused for a few seconds before saying, “That feels a little dishonest, Joe. Are you comfortable laying your head down tonight knowing you’re asking me to gaslight an employee instead of treating this situation with honesty?”
“Just get them to sign the severance, Kayla.”
A few hours later, more PIPs designed as gaslighting tools hit my inbox. Eight employees were to be persuaded to exit instead of fairly working through a PIP. The HR business partner for the sales business unit informed me this was common practice and that in order to maintain a healthy relationship with sales leadership, I needed to comply.
So I didn’t comply.
I spent hours editing the PIPs to have reasonable and attainable goals in a one-month timeframe. I put myself in the shoes of the employees we would be talking to and knew I wouldn’t sacrifice honest HR practice for a relationship with a sales executive.
I provided my professional opinion about using a PIP as an improvement tool (rather than a means to force people out), gave meaningful statistics about psychological safety directly impacting work success, and advocated that employees could not feel psychologically safe with a practice like this.
Nonetheless, I was shot down by my boss. With all of that logic, the VP of HR chose her reputation with sales leadership over ethical HR practice.
Years later, that company has been sued for employment law infringements many times over, and that HR VP is no longer at the organization.
Discipline With Humanity
Disciplining employees is complex, but not difficult. Mitigating risk is almost always as simple as treating employees like humans, instead of warm bodies that get the work done. It’s important to create an environment for people to feel psychologically safe, even when they aren’t meeting expectations.
It’s time to take a look in the discipline mirror and decide if your practices are centered around humanity or gaslighting workers. Here are a few principles to run your discipline practices through.
Whether you’re managing PIPs, terminations, severance agreements, written warnings, etc., you should be able to easily answer the question, “What’s the goal?”
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If people involved in the discipline conversation don’t say the same goal or can’t articulate the goal, we’ve failed. If leadership can’t decide on the goal, we’ve failed. All discipline practices should be motivated by an agreed upon objective, and that objective should always be treating employees with dignity and giving them a chance.
Severance agreements should be written with the intent of helping an employee during transition, not keeping you safe from a lawsuit. PIPs should be written with the intent of improving employee performance, no exiting them with documentation. Make your discipline practices have the goal of dignity and you’ll see your organization mitigate more risk than any formal process.
All discipline practices should be outlined in a central location for employees to reference. People need to know what to expect when they aren’t meeting the mark, and they need to know when they’re being gaslit by leadership.
Putting the phrase, “We believe in progressive discipline,” in your handbook isn’t humane. It’s a cop-out. Avoiding the details of discipline will only give leadership the opportunity to navigate away from standard practice.
Commit to your discipline practices, post them on your company intranet, and hold management accountable to these practices. Get feedback from employees on what’s posted, and be ready to be held to the transparency you’re agreeing to.
Check Your Gut
As Ted Lasso says, “On your way down to your gut, check in with your heart. Between those two, you’ll know what’s what.”
You know what it’s like to be gaslit, and you know when you’re covering up for the company instead of advocating for healthy employee relations practices. Situation by situation, you need to calibrate your internal gut and heart by checking in with both of those parts of you each time discipline comes up. Humanity is begging for HR professionals to lead with their hearts instead of being worried about their legal team, because when that shift happens, discipline is powerful and trusted.