Why ‘3 Strikes’ is a Behavioral Method Best Left in the Classroom

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The three strikes rule offers consistency, but real control is often illusionary.

Implementing any strict disciplinary policy in the workplace comes with pros and cons. The so-called “three strikes” rule is no exception. With three strikes, the assumption is that an employee will be given two opportunities to correct inappropriate or undesirable behavior, but on the third incidence, may be fired. This policy can both create a comforting level of consistency in evaluating disputes, but also offers serious challenges. Here's what you need to know when considering a policy.See also: 5 Ways to Better Motivate Employees in a Startup Business

3 Strikes: Benefits of a Simple Disciplinary Program

Implementing a formal disciplinary program seems like a great way to ensure fairness and communicate expectations to employees. In fact, these are some of the primary reasons employers look for a formal disciplinary program in the first place. They seek to strike a balance between encouraging employee productivity with maintaining high standards for performance. A disciplinary policy helps walk that line. Here are a few more of the benefits of implementing a three-strike disciplinary approach: - It is a way to make employees aware of problematic behavior and gives them the chance to improve. - It gives the employer a way to be consistent if followed every time (but more on that in a minute). - It can become the basis for an employer’s documentation of an employee termination decision.

3 Strikes: Drawbacks to Using an Inflexible Disciplinary Approach

As noted, implementing any formal disciplinary policy comes with both benefits and drawbacks. Let’s take a look at some of the most problematic concerns with this approach: Self-imposed obligations. Most states have what is called “at-will” employment—meaning that employers can terminate an employee for whatever reason, as long as it's not discriminatory. Implementing a disciplinary policy actually creates obligations that don’t otherwise exist. In other words, implementing a three-strike policy makes it harder to terminate a problem employee in certain situations. Inflexibility. When a policy has rigid steps to follow, it increases the difficulty of tailoring actions to the situation at hand. This is completely inappropriate for high-level offenses, such as harassment or violence. Be sure if you are considering implementing any disciplinary policy to include language allowing any or all steps to be skipped, based on the seriousness of the violation. Inconsistent application. Applying the exact same process to every situation is easier said than done, even with the best of intentions. In other words, one of the theoretical benefits of the policy — consistency — is often nearly impossible to implement in practice. One manager might consider tardiness a strike, while another manager might not consider that worthy of writing up. One might consider losing a client to be a strike, while another might consider that to be part of the business process. By having a policy that is difficult to implement consistently, you open the door for complaints of unfair treatment or bias. Implementation takes valuable time. This type of policy increases administrative burden for managers and HR. A three-strike policy might seem to be a simple way to administer discipline, but it comes with a lot of drawbacks. This method is used extensively in classrooms because it's easy for children to understand. Adults can understand it, but may feel they are being treated as children, or, worse, may feel they are being targeted.

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Bridget M.

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse department...

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