I have had a number of very bad supervisors in my lifetime. Some of them were blatantly abusive, while others were passive aggressively unhelpful. I'm going to have a several-part series on some of the things I've experienced, and how I think employee/employer relationships can and should be improved.
In many of the places I have worked, there is a strong culture of blame instead of an atmosphere of problem-solving. In a non-union workplace, it's so easy to fire an employee that there is little incentive for an employer to try to re-train the employee and work with him or her to keep them around.
In many cases, each mistake follows the worker like a shadow. They can't shake it, and they can't fully redeem themselves with achievement. Maybe they were late to work last month, but came in early every day since, plus doubled their productivity. When they're late again one day, all the good in-between will count for nothing; all that will matter are the two late infractions (and, often, this turns into, "You're ALWAYS late" on the supervisor's part).
I have found that many supervisors are less inclined to work on positive development of their employees--and they are pretty much programmed to only register infractions. They look for a reason to exercise their authority, and they don't have much incentive to reward good work. Any supervisor I've known to "document" an employee's behavior has only written down negative things. An employee file is a laundry list of infractions, to be used as a reason to fire them later. Not on that list are the late nights stayed to finish a project, the time that employee came up with an idea that saved everyone's ass, or even a notation that they are supremely good at particular aspects of the job that give others trouble.
Management strategies of US employers basically consist of negative reinforcement (unless it's a favored employee) and instilling a fear of termination. I believe that this is wrong on many levels. It is a source of psychological and emotional trauma and distress. It doesn't help people truly develop good work skills. It is also irresponsible to society as a whole by creating instability for families and individuals. If an employer had incentive to work with an employee to improve their skills and work ethic, the employee would be less likely to become unemployed, and if they did change jobs for other reasons, the new employer would not have to work with unmanaged poor skills and work ethic.
As it is, "bad" workers who do not learn to work smarter and better are shunted from one job to another, not picking up the training needed to improve. They may end up on welfare, or they may end up turning to crime to support themselves and their families. If one or two employers had actually taken the time and effort to train them--and really train them, not give them a series of worthless "punishments", they might have become a better worker.
I'm not saying that there aren't some people who just aren't going to learn, no matter what you do; they're out there, for sure, and they'll be what they are. But I really believe that the majority can be helped--and there needs to be a responsibility somewhere to help them. If no one steps up to the plate to take them on, then that worker becomes everyone's problem--on public assistance, or committing crimes, or bouncing from one job to another, wreaking havoc on every workplace they temporarily occupy.
I don't know all the answers, but soon I will have some suggestions--after an interlude.