Hot Stove Rule and Employee Discipline

“NO…NO…HOT!” I said, as my toddler reached for the stove. “HOT!”

Fair and effective employee discipline has the same characteristics as a “Red Hot Stove:” forewarning, immediate, consistent and impartial. According to leadership expert Douglas McGregor, all four should be applied to employee discipline.

Forewarning: The closer you get to the red coils, the hotter it gets. You are forewarned if you touch it, you will get burned.

The Hot Stove at Work: Providing detailed warning of expectations in advance is essential. A clear link is made between performance standards, prior warnings, and consequences for unmet expectations. Standards don’t seem conjured up out of thin air. Best of all, the stove [supervisor] feels no “guilt” about later imposing discipline because the employee, despite being warned, chose their behavior.

Immediate: Touch a hot stove and, you know instantly, you have done something wrong.

The Hot Stove at Work: Discipline must occur immediately ensuring the individual will see a clear link between their behavior and the outcome. The more time between the employee’s poor performance and the supervisor’s reaction, the less effective the discipline. And, when time is allowed to pass, people tend to convince themselves they are not at fault. So, don’t wait for the “mandatory evaluation, a more “convenient” time, or (and I’ve actually seen this happen) wait and hope the employee transfers or retires.

Consistent: When you touch a hot stove, it always burns.

The Hot Stove at Work: Discipline does not differ, for the same offense, from one person to the next. Most egregious of offense is when a supervisor “touches the stove” yet, reprimands employees for the same behavior. Nothing fuels resentment like inconsistent discipline.

Impersonal: Whoever touches the stove will be burnt. It doesn’t burn some people and not others.

The Hot Stove at Work: Discipline should reflect the offense … not the person who committed it. Focus on the act, not the individual. It doesn’t matter who the employee is; the boss’s best friend, uncle, someone who is experiencing personal crisis …
The supervisor doesn’t dread disciplining; nor should the employee feel resentment because the discipline is a response to the behavior.
The stove only burns the one who touched it and no one else. Think of how many rules, regulations and penalties are imposed on the many because of the few who actually needed discipline.

When disciplining an employee, your conversations about their performance can include a review all four “hot stove” conditions:

Forewarning– “You knew what would happen, and still you chose to [touch the stove.]”
Immediate – “Just now, you [touched the stove.] As a result …”
Consistent – “Anyone who [touches the stove] gets burned.”
Impersonal – “You are getting burned because you chose to [touch the stove.] ”

The word “discipline” has its roots in the Latin word discere, which means “to learn.” Use the Red Hot Stove Rule to apply discipline fairly and effectively. Discipline, done well, can give your employees an opportunity to grow and learn.