Learn how to build, implement and enforce a progressive discipline policy. It’ll be to the benefit of your employees and your business.

A progressive discipline policy is one in which, as an employee’s behavior or performance fails to improve or even worsens, the consequences increase in severity – culminating in termination.

Disciplining employees can be one of the hardest aspects of managing people. Certainly, it can be an uncomfortable and unpleasant task. And it must be handled carefully to avoid landing yourself in legal trouble.

But the alternative option – playing each situation by ear and only coaching employees in response to incidents as they arise – amounts to simply hoping that the employee in question listens to you and improves. You could also expose yourself unnecessarily to risk.

Critical benefits of a progressive discipline policy

1. It lets employees know what’s expected of them, without ambiguity.

At a high level, the policy spells out expectations for behavior and performance.

Then it explains the consequences for failing to meet these expectations – or, on the flip side, helps employees understand what they need to do to succeed and thrive in your workplace.

Because the policy is visible to all employees, it places everyone on the same page and on equal footing.

2. It’s a guide for your day-to-day interactions with employees – and vice versa.

3. It provides a pathway to end a relationship with a problem employee while maintaining fairness and objectivity.

If you decide that an employee should be terminated, you need to do it the right way:

  • With evidence that the employee’s behavior or performance wasn’t up to well-documented standards
  • That the employee didn’t make improvements despite being given ample opportunity to do so

4. It mitigates risks and gives you a crucial defense if an employee challenges their termination.

If an employee files a discrimination complaint against you or says that you were otherwise unfair, you have this policy to fall back on.

By clarifying expectations and standards, a progressive discipline policy is a win-win for both employers and employees.

While coaching is important to overall employee development, it doesn’t provide the same risk mitigation and employer defense as a well implemented progressive discipline policy.

So how do you go about creating a progressive discipline policy? 

Three core elements of a progressive discipline policy

Every discipline policy has three core elements:

  1. Definitions of the types of behaviors that are unacceptable, along with a list of examples that usually fall within these categories:
    1. Poor work performance
    2. Poor behavior
    3. Violation of company rules or policies
  2. Explanation of the consequences for those behaviors, and the process by which the consequences will escalate to termination
  3. Resource for questions, issues or concerns (usually a human resources contact)

Four steps in the progressive discipline process

These are the four basic, essential steps to the disciplinary process, along with an optional pre-step:

Optional pre-step: informal coaching

Coaching employees is an initial step that’s typically outside the discipline process. It’s simply an early opportunity between a manager and employee to discuss where that employee isn’t measuring up from the outset.

You might consider taking this step:

  • When you first implement your progressive discipline policy, for a finite period of time while everyone adjusts to new rules
  • For new hires, for a finite period of time while they acclimate to their new position and workplace

At this stage, you’re giving an employee the benefit of the doubt when you notice something wrong.

This conversation is more educational for both parties. Offer help and ask what you can do. Find out whether any external factors exist that may negatively impact an employee’s behavior or performance, and explore how these can be resolved.

Make them aware of future steps if no improvement is seen. Refer back to your progressive discipline policy, if needed. There shouldn’t be any surprises for your employees.

Step 1. Verbal warning

In a private, confidential meeting, inform the employee what, specifically, they have done wrong or how they haven’t responded to coaching.

This lets the employee know you haven’t seen improvement and officially puts the employee on notice of their problematic performance. Include a representative from your HR team in this meeting.

Even though this encounter is verbal, you should still document it in the employee’s personnel file so you have a record that it happened and can protect yourself should the decision to terminate an employee be questioned.

Always document the following information:

  • Date
  • Time
  • Reason for the disciplinary meeting
  • What was discussed
  • The agreed-upon next steps
  • Who was present

Step 2. Written warning

Meet with the employee privately and confidentially, with a member of the HR team present. Give the employee a written, dated form detailing:

  • The policy
  • How, specifically, the employee has violated this policy in a detailed summary of behavior or performance
  • The expected corrective action
  • The consequences of non-compliance

All parties at the meeting need to sign the form – manager, employee and third-party witness (HR).

Explain to the employee that signing the form doesn’t mean they agree with it. Instead, it’s merely an acknowledgement that the discussion took place and the employee saw the form. They will still be accountable for the expected corrective action and any consequences of non-compliance regardless of signing the form or not.

Give the employees the opportunity to add notes or comments to the form. They may not agree with the assessment of their performance or behavior, and their side of the story should be captured.

Add this form to the employee’s personnel file.

Step 3. Final warning

This meeting should proceed much like that for the written warning – the only difference is that this is the final step before termination. The written, dated form that you give the employee at this meeting should clearly state that this is the final warning and further infractions will result in termination.

Be sure to reiterate the policy, what the employee did wrong and what the desired corrective action is.

Once again, all parties present should sign the form. Afterward, you should add it to the employee’s personnel file.

Step 4. Termination

This is the meeting at which you’ll notify your employee that you’re letting them go. Give your employee a written, dated form stating this, which will be added to the employee’s personnel file. All parties present need to sign.

Have a written checklist on hand for tasks that need to happen in real time, such as:

  • Discussing and providing final pay according to state requirements
  • Collecting your property from the employee, such as company-issued laptops, cell phones, keycards, pay cards and badges
  • Allowing the employee to retrieve their personal items from their workspace
  • Switching off the employee’s access to company systems

11 best practices to implement and pitfalls to watch out for

1. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Review what other companies’ codes of conduct or discipline policies say. Pay close attention to companies in your industry.

These other policies can provide you with a good model on which to base your policy.

2. Carefully consider what you want to spell out in your policy

Take into account:

  • What your employees and members of the wider industry find fair and reasonable
  • Your company culture

3. Obtain input from your leadership team.

They may flag an issue that you’ve overlooked or make a recommendation that could prove valuable.

4. Make sure your policy is clear and easy to understand.

5. Obey all related laws and regulations.

Confirm that your policy doesn’t clash with federal, state and local laws where you operate. If you have legal resources, solicit their input.

6. Ensure all employees understand the progressive discipline policy.

Within your workplace, widespread awareness of your progressive discipline policy is important.

No one should be able to claim that they didn’t know about the policy. This is critical for protecting your business and reducing legal risk.

  • Your progressive discipline policy should be written and included in your employee handbook for easy reference.
  • Email current employees a copy of the policy or give them a hard copy. Either way, they should acknowledge, in writing, that they received and read the policy.
  • Reading and acknowledging the policy should also be part of your onboarding process for new hires.

7. Understand that your policy may have to adapt to some circumstances.

You won’t always follow the four steps outlined above in perfect order. After all, there are some infractions so egregious that they may warrant termination on the spot, following any necessary investigation.

Examples:

  1. Theft
  2. Harassment
  3. Violence or assault
  4. Drug use

Your policy can’t possibly cover every conceivable scenario. Avoid getting too detailed in the language of your policy and locking yourself into taking certain actions, so that you can accommodate unanticipated scenarios.

If an otherwise good employee has a legitimate reason for poor performance, allow some flexibility in addressing their unique situation.

This is why you should keep your policy open-ended in tone (for example, “this action may result in termination”).

8. (Almost) always stick to the four-step plan.

For less egregious, easily anticipated infractions, follow the four steps described above in order every time you discipline an employee. This helps to maintain clarity and consistency.

9. Resist the urge to terminate someone because they annoy you or you develop bad feelings about them.

The process exists for a reason – to act as your guide and to protect you. Follow it.

Remember: It’s about facts and objectivity, not emotions and impulsivity.

10. Apply the policy uniformly.

You don’t want to get hit with charges of discrimination and create a paranoid, toxic atmosphere. Instead, demonstrate that no one is being singled out unfairly.

This means that senior leadership and HR must adhere to the policy – without exception.

If employees see that their leaders don’t take the policy seriously, neither will they. And if employees see leaders committing offenses without receiving disciplinary action, you’ll develop problems with morale and engagement.

11. Train managers on how to effectively administer discipline under the policy.

Following the rules and motivating an employee to change their behavior without demoralizing the employee can be a tricky balancing act. It can be helpful to role play the disciplinary meetings.

How a PEO can help

When it comes to creating and implementing progressive discipline policy, a professional employer organization (PEO) can:

  • Write the policy with you based on their subject matter expertise and experience working with companies similar to yours.
  • Review the language of your policy to avoid unintended discrimination, or the targeting of classes of people protected by law
  • Ensure that your policy is in compliance at the federal, state and local level
  • Offer training for disciplinary situations
  • Give you a dedicated support team to assist you in disciplining employees, among other HR tasks
  • Provide you with an HR representative to sit in on disciplinary meetings
  • Serve as an objective, neutral third party during disciplinary meetings. As someone who’s not close to the dispute, they can help to bring about an amenable solution for employers and employees

Summing it all up

A progressive discipline policy offers your business important benefits: establishing expectations for everyone at your workplace and reducing your risk should lawsuits or discrimination complaints arise.

  • Build your policy around the three core elements that should appear in all discipline policies, as well as the four disciplinary steps from verbal warning to termination.
  • Make sure that your policy is clear and legally compliant, yet flexible enough to accommodate unanticipated scenarios.
  • For smooth, problem-free implementation of your policy, consider using the assistance of a PEO.

For more information on how to deal with employees that exhibit poor behavior and performance, download our free e-book: A practical guide to managing difficult employees.

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