I have an extremely unique situation in which I need to discipline one of my subordinates for violating my privacy. My subordinate went through my desk without my permission while I was running a very quick errand.

A little background. We are on a team making a very important product for our company (I won’t say the name here but you would definitely know it if you heard it). Unfortunately there have been a lot of missed deadlines due to inexperience and laziness on the part of our programmers. One of the key issues I was able to identify was that many programmers like to leave as soon as they think they can get away with it or if they want to take long lunches. To fix this problem I made a policy of collecting car keys during our morning one-on-one stand ups, that way I knew when programmers were leaving the office too early.

One of the more arrogant coders who has always given me problems over my policies went through my desk to get his car keys while I was running an errand at lunch. This is not my first issue with this employee and I have given him many verbal warnings in the past.

I feel like my privacy has been violated but I would prefer not to go to HR or our manager over the issue.

How can I discipline this rebellious employee?

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:59
  • 2
    To others thinking of posting a don't do this answer. Please consider if it add any value with the existing 4 answers that already say do not do it. Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 22:50
  • Are these employees H-1-B or otherwise dependent on your employment to remain in the United States? Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 23:33
  • If I found myself in such a childish environment, I would start bringing two sets of keys to work.
    – phoog
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 15:25

7 Answers 7


You are the project manager. If your only way to keep your project on schedule is to play the childish game of confiscating something like car keys then you've got bigger problems than someone going through your desk to retrieve their own property. If I was asked this by a project manager my response would be "f**k no". I'd then be talking to my supervisor (and maybe HR).

Treat the people on your project (developers, analysts, testers, etc.) as professionals. Treating them a children is guaranteed to get the pushback your getting.

If the project is missing deadlines then you (as the PM) need to lead. Do you have a daily standup? Scrum? Goals for each day, week, month specified? Do you get developer feedback (if using a methodology such as agile) for specific deliverables? Are the people on your team involved in setting goals?

Holding people accountable is the goal. Treating them like children is not.

  • 20
    Then (again) you as the PM need to determine why the milestones are being missed. Is it unclear requirements? Lack of skill in the development staff? Lack of training? Pay & benefits leading to a less-experienced staff? All of these have fixes. I'm a lead programmer. I work with my PM's on a daily basis. A good PM is worth their weight in gold. However, micro-managing (as daily one-on-one, sheesh) is NOT the way to manage a project.
    – JazzmanJim
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 19:49
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    @NateJay Daily standups are so the team as a whole knows what everyone is doing not just to be assigned tasks. If you are assigning tasks in one on one standups and giving the team no input on what tasks are getting done and how they are assigned sounds like you have major issues as a PM.
    – Joe W
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 19:51
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    @NateJay, Lunch is a legitimate reason to leave the office and go somewhere. It is NOT company time but employee time. Further, you state that you don;t see why someone might need to leave unexpectedly during the day. I have done so when I had a family emergency such as when my boyfriend died. I have also had to leave for medical reasons or, being female, I have had to leave due to severe monthly cramps. What you are doing is totally unacceptable. I can;t imagine why your devs have not had you fired. Because I sure would have been to HR the second you tried to confiscate my car keys.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 20:50
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    If I need to leave in an emergency, I might shout to my boss why I'm leaving, but an emergency is an emergency and I'm gone. Slavery has been abolished ages ago.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:08
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    @NateJay - with that comment, I can see everything wrong with your management approach. I've seen your type before. I've actually seen one of your type marched out in handcuffs before. You need to get some serious leadership coaching and maybe some personal counselling, or your life and career are about to take a serious nose-dive. Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:13

You Don't

In the particular situation described above, collecting your employees' car keys under threat of firing them could be constituted as theft under US law, as you are in a position of power over them. IANAL, but I would STRONGLY recommend you immediately stop with this absurd policy, and come clean to HR before one of your subordinates considers legal action.

By theft, I am referring to the (even temporary) removal of someone else's property through coercion. That is to say, when you announce that there is a new company policy that all car keys be turned into you at the start of the workday, and may be retrieved at any time, but the intent is understood to mean that early leaving etc. will be punished, this is forcing them to surrender control of their property under threat. This may be illegal. This could be considered theft, and given the value of the property involved, may even be interpreted as a felony.

NOTE : This question shows that it may not constitute theft to take someone's keys in this manner, as the keys are surrendered voluntarily. IANAL so I would have to defer to someone with more legal knowledge for the jurisdiction.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:27
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    I've changed parts of this post that necessitated the need for citations to be supplied. If you want to go back to the previous wording, you need to supply the necessary citations to back this answer up.
    – user44108
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 6:15
  • A related question on Law suggests that this is not theft.
    – phoog
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 15:13
  • @phoog I will link that in my answer. I was the one who posited that question to attempt to confirm my answer here.
    – GOATNine
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 17:17
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    Of course, it's also possible that a crime other than theft would be committed. But I suspect that in most instances of at-will employment, this would be seen as a voluntary transaction between the employer and the employee -- the employee could refuse the transaction (at least in theory) by leaving the job. But even in at-will employment, there are restrictions on the conditions of employment, and in some jurisdictions, this might violate some restriction or other.
    – phoog
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:35

You are talking about programmers and coders. Either you are showing a spectacular degree of contempt for these employees, or its all your own fault for not hiring proper developers.

I'll tell you a secret: The salary that I get paid is what makes me go to work in the morning and return home in the evening, and not switch to another company. What makes me work hard is the people there, the environment, a boss that trusts me and relies on me, a job that is interesting, and so on. I deliver, and the company gets that for free, just by the way everyone behaves.

What you do will destroy anyone's motivation. If you took my car keys (not that you would have the slightest chance getting them, if you think you've got arrogant developers, you haven't met me), it's obvious that you wouldn't get any work out of me if I can avoid it. If you miss deadlines, it's your behaviour, your total contempt for your employees, that is at fault.

PS. People tend subconsciously to try to meet your expectations. You expect your developers to be inexperienced and lazy, to avoid being at work, so guess what they are doing. The result: They try to meet your expectations.

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    +1000 on this. I work for the salary (and benefits). What keeps me coming back is the people I work with.
    – JazzmanJim
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 20:11

Managing programmers is like herding cats, and it looks like you are about to get the claws.

Not only do you not attempt to discipline the programmer, you take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself why you feel the need to treat your people with such utter contempt and disrespect.

If you take this to HR, you will find out just how much HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

I've been a project manager and nobody could figure out why my projects were getting done so quickly. Neither did I until I read this as it seems that treating people with decency and respect seems to be the exception as opposed to the rule.


Your people will make or break you and you need them more than they need you. The fact that you are referring to them as lazy and/or incompetent, as well as you treating them like children by confiscating their keys is a recipe for disaster and you'll be the main ingredient.

Stop this before someone takes YOU to HR, and HR will be their friend.

I thought the days of "Beatings will continue until morale improves" ended in the 1980s!

If what you want is discipline and high performance, then you treat your employees with respect. Stop referring to them as your subordinates. That's another thing that went out with boom boxes, shoulder pads, and mullets, which brings me to...


They're staging a job action, and you are the cause. Two times in my career, I have managed to push managers out the door. Don't underestimate what your "subordinates" can do to your career. Their morale is in the basement and you're making it worse. Your job as a manager in any capacity is to eliminate obstacles to the job getting done. If they are under-skilled, get books and classes. If you think they're not putting out 100%, it is your job to encourage, not threaten them.


Drop any thought of trying to punish your employees like children and start motivating and encouraging them.

  • If I don’t discipline them then they will walk all over me. What do you do to a subordinate who is openly disrespectful to you? Even with what i do they make jokes that my written warnings aren’t “official” and give me no respect as a manager.
    – Nate Jay
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:35
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    Reading your posts, that employee is openly disrespectful because that is what you deserve. Written warnings? Take this comment as a written warning that you are unlikely to stay in your job for long.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:44
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    @NateJay Are your written warnings officially recognized by company policy? If not, then you may be stepping outside your authority. You are definitely stepping outside your authority by confiscating their car keys. What is the official company policy for disciplining an employee? Why are you replacing company policy with your own made up policies that are not improving the situation and may even be illegal in some places? Those are the questions HR will direct to you if this comes to light, and you will likely be shown the door since you can't possibly have a good answer.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 23:32

So, you have to collect car keys to enforce your workers' good behavior?

To advance as a manager, you need to get out of this rut of micromanagement and start trusting your workers. I know what you're thinking: "but they can't be trusted." It's a chicken and egg problem, to be sure (which came first: poor performance, or micromanagement?), but they both contribute to a vicious cycle.

For instance, you say "We used to have daily standups with the team but I canceled them in favor of one-on-one standups so I could assign programmers heir tasks for the day without argument or confusion. And even with this a lot of them still come up with excuses as to why they can’t complete simple tasks." I assume your programmers are all adults with qualifications, so why do you think that is?

You might want to say "But it shouldn't be this way!" but those thoughts aside, this is where you are right now. The question is how do you play the hand you were dealt.

If you keep trying to go down the path of authoritarianism, you're going to be stuck in this pattern of extremely poor performance and your best people jumping ship. Do you want that? Or do you want employees that get things done by themselves, with only a light touch from management?

I'd suggest reading up on micromanagement and trying to learn how to recover from what sounds like a very difficult situation for everyone. Remember, the only person you can really change is yourself.

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    +1000. I once had a manager who was bumped down a level during a reorganization. He was determined to get back to his previous level and would walk all over his team to get there. He had zero technical qualifications in the stuff we were doing (Microsoft stack) but insisted on feedback for everything we did. Micro-management to the extreme. He had our days planned in 15-minute increments. People almost came to blows over this. As professional developers (and analysts) we did like being treated a third-graders. He was fired during the year.
    – JazzmanJim
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 20:18
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    Worst is "authoritarianism" with no authority :-)
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 21:46

The automatic answer to "How do I avoid involving management" is you should get management involved.

The automatic answer to "How do I avoid involving HR" is take the matter to HR.

At work we used to have a saying, "If the public knowing what you're doing would make the company look bad, then you probably shouldn't be doing that.

All of these cases involve you operating "in the danger zone" where you are doing things you worry others might not approve of, or that may even be illegal as others have suggested. In the danger zone, you absolutely need to be protected by a consensus process.

Without consensus, you're a rogue manager acting alone, and management had no idea about this shady stuff you were doing, which they will rectify by firing you with cause. No unemployment, no references, it's all blamed on you.

With consensus, you are simply actioning the company policy made by others, and the group of you (management up the chain) mutually support each other. This is the way you are supposed to work.

It seems to me like your sense of "the task of management" is an adversarial one -- you are holding the line "against" your employees (who you don't trust to work), and holding the line "against" management (who you don't trust enough to educate them). That is not the truth. You would be wise to think very hard about what influences caused you to become inculcated into this way of thinking. Those influences are faulty.

  • It's already too late for the OP; they've already gone way beyond any protection. If they escalate, the company will dump the OP to protect themselves ad try to keep developers. Do you have any advice for the OP in this situation?
    – jpmc26
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 4:30
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    I wouldn't call it beyond the point of no return if OP has a turn of heart about it, stop accepting car keys and say "I shouldn'ta done that, that was a mistake" and start discussing his team's performance issues with higher management and follow their advice. OP needs to realize managing itself is a skill that must be learned and trained, and not try to solo it without support. Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 13:32

Let's assume for the moment your actions are reasonable and justified.
Aside: I don't, but it's irrelevant for the point I'm going to make.

You can't discipline people you have no authority over. To cut the person/people responsible for their behavior out of the loop will only create more problems for you.

In my former position, I was a manager over 5 developers. One of them had a problem with tardiness. This was an issue I was well aware of, and I was taking the necessary steps to deal with this properly. Someone else took it upon themselves to try and talk to the person with the issue and exert some authority on the situation. They tardy person came to me, told me what happened, and the end result was that I had two write ups to submit instead of one.

If you truly believe you're in the right here, there's no reason not to escalate this through the proper channels, and let the chips fall where they may.

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