People make mistakes - things happen. The goal of punishing users is to prevent them from doing it again, so they can learn from it. But, if a user breaks a rule and has demonstrated that it was an accident and they already learned from their mistake, is it still necessary to punish them anyways?
Punishment is NOT always necessary, and often undermines what you're trying to do.
Ask yourself this: In your entire life, how often has your personal response to punishment (not feedback, not natural consequences, but punishment, like a time-out, getting grounded, etc.) made you think, "Those are reasonable rules, and I really should have respected them!"
The problem with punishing someone is this: The act of punishing almost always makes the individual feel like the punisher (and their rules) are less reasonable than they did before. Put another way,
Punishment actually makes the recipient less likely to accept and embrace your rules. Relative to most other actions, it mostly just increases their odds of hating you.
As such, you should usually try to restrict it to one of the following cases:
- You've already tried constructive feedback and other methods of communication to no end, and you're convinced that nothing else can work, so there's little harm in alienating them further.
- Their actions are so clearly egregious that you actively want them gone forever, and have no interest in teaching them anything anyway (this should be pretty rare)
- Their actions are urgently harmful to the community, and a "time out" or other punishment is the only way to slow the bleeding and buy time to deal with it more subtly.
- Even though you might have better odds of teaching them with softer methods, you have to take action to demonstrate to the community or others that this behavior won't be tolerated, because it's spread would be so dangerous. (Bigoted language that's more ignorant than hate-driven might fall in this bucket.)
In short, we always think punishment will increase the odds of someone "learning." And we've got it backwards, so punishment should mostly be restricted to the cases above.
It's not punishment, it's discipline. The goal is to make the user learn. With that in mind, let's look at your question:
But, if a user breaks a rule and has demonstrated that it was an accident and they already learned from their mistake
If they've already learned from their mistake, and you believe they have, then by definition you don't need to do anything. Mission accomplished.
The one big question I ask before suspending a user is "Will they stop the problematic behaviour if I simply ask them to?". If I think that a user is reasonable and will stop the behaviour once I ask them, I generally don't see any need for further action. A harsh reaction might antagonize the user without any necessity and lead to problems later on.
Punishment is also not the right word in my opinion here. A suspension or ban might be perceived as punishment by the affected user, but the intent behind these action should be simply to stop problematic behaviour.
There are certain actions where I consider a suspension or ban to be absolutely necessary. Direct and severe insults towards other community members are on example. In such cases they also serve as as a signal that such behaviour is not tolerated. Not taking action in such cases can lead to a higher amount of bad behaviour if users have the impression that no significant action is taken in such cases.
Probably not. This will just make them mad and have them possibly leave the site. However, it might be okay to do a slight punishment if that's standard or if it was terrible.
You might just want to formally give them a warning and keep a close eye on them. If they act up again, you could add the punishment for a first and second offense together (if there's formal guidelines for how long to suspend a user, etc.).
It is really something you have to play by ear. The primary goal of discipline is to prevent bad behavior and if the user has really learned, then it often is fine to avoid a penalty for their bad action as long as it isn't a regular occurrence.
That said, there are exceptions to this. Policies also need to be enforced fairly and evenly. If there is a situation where two individuals both ended up breaking the rules in a conflict and one seems to have reformed and admitted fault, but the other still hasn't, it is probably still best to penalize both individuals. It may not be necessary for the one, but if you only penalize the one who needs it, it is going to end up being really unfair.
When deciding if a penalty is needed I look at three main things, first, is it fair to punish or to not penalize the user, second, is there a pattern of behavior here that suggests the user hasn't learned despite claims that they have and third, do they appear to have learned from there actions and/or was it simply a mistake. The balance of those three things results in a determination of how to proceed and it is highly situational how they balance out.