Discipline consistently, reward intermittently

Personnel Matters

Many managers in business today experience uncertainty when it comes to how to handle issues involving employee behavior. The issues relate to both unsatisfactory and desired behaviors. Through his research, B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist, developed an approach that is a helpful guide to managers in such situations.

At its essence, Skinner’s theory of reinforcement states that behavior that is rewarded tends to become stronger and that which leads to punishment (or discipline) tends to become weaker. Most of us know this theory and attempt to employ it as best we can, but there are some areas where we still have difficulty. Let me provide some examples.


Many managers express uncertainty about what to do when an outstanding performer tends to engage in an undesirable practice such as showing up late for work or not adhering to other rules or policies in the workplace. They fear that addressing the issue
with the outstanding performer will lead to a decline in performance. While that may be the case, not addressing the behavior may lead to other problems that are far more serious. If the undesired behavior is not addressed, the morale of the individual’s colleagues may suffer as they see this individual engaging in the same behavior for which they would be disciplined. It could also increase the display of undesired behaviors on the part of others who may now feel free to ignore other organizational rules or policies. For these reasons, discipline should be applied consistently based on the organization’s rules and policies, regardless of whom the offender is.


Rewards are also a great way to influence behavior. Rewards may take the form of bonuses for outstanding performance, spot awards for exhibiting certain desired behaviors or recognition for a job well done. However, issues can also develop when rewards are not applied uniformly across all members of the organization. For example, if some employees are rewarded individually or as a group for achieving a certain goal or demonstrating a certain behavior, others who demonstrate the same outcomes should also be rewarded. If they are not, they will feel unappreciated, that favoritism is being shown and that the reward process is unfair.

However, in the case of rewards it is not necessary to reward EVERY instance in which a desired behavior is displayed. Skinner’s research also showed that the rate or frequency at which behavior is reinforced affects both the strength and frequency of the response. In the case of rewards, Skinner found that periodic or intermittent reinforcement produces stronger results than continuous reinforcement. That means that every employee does not have to be rewarded each time a desired behavior is displayed. Nevertheless, the reward process must be applied consistently across all employees through periodic recognition or reward of desired behaviors.


Because we view things through our own lenses of experience, it is possible that in both instances described above, the manager’s actions could be misinterpreted. Therefore, it is also helpful to communicate clearly to individuals who are being disciplined or rewarded why the action is taking place. Disciplinary actions should be accompanied by facts and a discussion of the potentially detrimental impact of the behavior. Rewards should also be unambiguous. Rewarding an employee with “Good Job!” may leave the individual wondering “What was it I did that is being recognized?” If the employee is being publicly recognized, it is even more important that the reason is clearly stated.


Rewarding and disciplining behavior can have significant, positive effects on an organization’s performance. When possible, it’s best to use rewards, but it is also necessary to discipline when appropriate, especially when behaviors are exhibited that endanger the health or safety of others. However, whatever you do, be consistent in the administration of discipline or rewards, avoid favoritism and communicate the reason you are doing it. You will be pleased with the results.

About Dr. W. J. Heisler 14 Articles
Dr. W. J. Heisler is professor of human resource management and director of the MSHRM program at Troy University. He operates out of TROY’s site based in Chesapeake, Va. He holds Ph.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Syracuse University and worked for more than 20 years in management and executive positions in human resources at Newport News Shipbuilding. Contact: wheisler@troy.edu.

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