Hot Stove Rule



The "Hot-Stove Rule" of Douglas McGregor gives a good illustration of how to impose disciplinary action without generating resentment. This rule draws an analogy between touching a hot stove, and undergoing discipline. When you touch a hot stove, your discipline is immediate, with warning, consistent, and impersonal.

These four characteristics, according to McGregor, as applied to discipline are self-serving and may be explained as follows:
  1. When you touch the hot stove, you burn your hand. The burn was immediate. Will you blame the hot stove for burning your hand? Immediately, you understand the cause and effect of the offense. The discipline was directed against the act not against anybody else. You get angry with yourself, but you know it was your fault. You get angry with the hot stove too, but not for long as you know it was not its fault. You learn your lesson quickly.
  2. You had warning as you knew the stove was red hot and you knew what would happen to you if you touched it. You knew the rules and regulations previously issued to you by the company prescribing the penalty for violation of any particular rule so you cannot claim you were not given a previous warning.
  3. The discipline was consistent. Every time you touch the hot stove you get burned. Consistency in the administration of disciplinary action is essential. Excessive leniency as well as too much harshness creates not only dissatisfaction but also resentment.
  4. The discipline was impersonal. Whoever touches the hot stove gets burned, no matter who he is. Furthermore, he gets burned not because of who he is, but because he touched the hot stove. The discipline is directed against the act, not against the person. After disciplinary action has been applied, the supervisor should take the normal attitude toward the employee.
In applying this Hot Stove rule in disciplinary action, there must be company policies, rules and regulations regarding certain behavior and conduct which were issued and clearly explained to employees and accepted by them for compliance. Disciplinary action must be directed against the act, not against the person. It must be used by supervisors as a tool to develop the employee and the group. The steps that should be followed are:
  • Immediate investigation of the offense must be done to determine the facts. If the company is unionized, the investigation must be conducted in the presence of the union steward or one of the representatives of the union. Promptness is necessary in order that the employee will associate the investigation with the offense rather than with his person.
  • Previous warning. In labor relations, it is important that the company policies, rules and regulations be issued to and explained to all employees upon induction as part of the orientation program. This should be done by the supervisor with the help of the personnel department. In addition, whenever new policies, rules and regulations are promulgated, they must be posted in the company's bulletin board, circulated, and explained to the employees by the supervisor. It is a good practice to have the employees acknowledge receipt of a copy of the said rule or policy so they could not deny knowledge of the rules.
In some companies, the rules and regulations provide "progressive discipline" whereby penalties are graduated depending upon the gravity and frequency of the violation.
  • Consistency in the administration of disciplinary action is highly essential so that employees will know what to expect as a consequence of an infraction or violation of the rule or regulation.
  • Disciplinary action must be impersonal. It should be directed against the act, not the person. It should be institutional, that is, for the protection and interest of the entire organization and for all employees, and not done to satisfy the personal whim and caprice of the supervisor.

Key principles to remember

Always remember the Hot Stove Rule where discipline is concerned:-
  • You had a warning – you knew what would happen if you touched the stove
  • The penalty was consistent – everyone gets the same treatment
  • The penalty is impersonal – a person is burned not because of who he or she is, but because the stove was touched
  • The penalty is not delayed.
  • So check out the facts first, follow due process and, if appropriate, apply the discipline as soon after the event as investigations will allow. If you fail to be consistent, you may end up getting your own fingers burnt!