Study: Restoring lost privileges an overlooked key to discipline

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Managers who dole out discipline by taking away privileges — without considering the implications of restoring them — are missing a key in their bid to improve performance and behavior, a new University of Illinois study says.

Denying privileges is a widely used disciplinary tool, from workplaces to churches and other member-based organizations, but the consequences of giving them back have been largely ignored, according to research by Matthew McCarter and Arran Caza, of the U. of I. College of Business.

“It’s not just how you punish the person. The way privileges are reinstated can make or break how effective the punishment was,” said McCarter, who earned his doctoral degree this summer and will teach business at Chapman University in the fall.

McCarter and Caza, a former U. of I. business administration professor now on the faculty at Wake Forest University, found that restoring lost privileges is more common than most people suspect, based on information gathered through interviews and accounts in the media and academic journals.

Along with the workplace, lifting sanctions also extends into areas ranging from sports, where athletes are benched for rules violations, to religion, where parishioners can be denied communion or other sacraments for breaches of church doctrine, the research maintains.

“Colleagues thought reinstatement would be very rare, and that even if it did occur the privileges being restored would be very extreme, such as a person getting their job back after termination,” McCarter said. “However we found that is not the case at all. It happens all the time through all stages of life and involves a wide range of privileges, from kids getting back the keys to the car to lawyers who are readmitted to the bar.”

Because restoring privileges was considered uncommon, McCarter says past research has focused largely on the motivational impact of punishment alone. But the way bosses handle giving them back can have just as much influence, he said.

“Organizations can use reinstatement to their benefit, offering it as a reward to make a more committed worker,” he said. “The old adage that we tend to love what we’ve suffered for applies very much here.”

McCarter says the findings offer hope to workers and others who lose privileges.

“They don’t necessarily have to be at the mercy of the organization,” he said. “This shows they have some control over their destiny.”

The study, under review for publication in an academic journal, found four general reasons why businesses and organizations reinstate privileges:

  • External forces, such as court orders ordering that privileges be restored or negative publicity stemming from the discipline that taints the organization’s image.

  • Financial pressures if denied privileges create additional costs, such as overtime for other workers because a colleague has been barred from certain tasks.

  • Established rules or norms that spell out procedures for reinstatement and encourage it.

  • A determination that the violation leading to lost privileges stemmed from something beyond the worker’s control. For example, a worker disciplined for harassing a client could have privileges restored if manager later learned a medical condition such as bi-polar disorder or alcoholism was a factor.

McCarter says follow-up research is under way to get a clearer picture of how managers can use reinstatement most effectively and how workers best respond to regaining privileges.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but two things are for sure,” he said. “One, reinstatement happens and it happens very commonly. Two, reinstatement can make or break how effective the punishment was. How people are treated when getting privileges back really affects their performance and how they view the organization.”

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