Progressive Discipline – 4 Steps to Successful Employee Progressive Discipline

Managers hope that employees follow policy, accomplish goals and get along with co-workers.

Unfortunately, there are times when that does not happen and managers are forced to correct and discipline employees.  This is one of the least favorite responsibilities of a manager – but a necessary  part of  managing employee performance.

Employees should have a good understanding of what is expected of them before any disciplinary action is taken.  These expectations should be articulated in written documents, such as an employee handbook,  job description and employee goals. It is much easier to discuss and address performance issues when expectations have been clearly communicated and supported by a written document.

Managers hope that employees follow policy, accomplish goals and get along with co-workers. Unfortunately, there are times when that does not happen and managers are forced to correct and discipline employees. Sometimes, it is the employee’s behavior that needs to be addressed.  When an employee’s behavior does not meet expectations, it is important to focus on describing specific undesirable behaviors.  Documentation should be fact based (not opinion) and focus should be on the employees’ conduct – rather than the person.  There should be no biases and the documentation should describe how the behaviors affect others – both good and bad, and should be as specific and detailed as possible.

Documentation of the incident should capture the employees’ perspective as well.  It is only fair to hear them out and this conversation provides the manager an opportunity to coach the employee and help them understand the impact of their behaviors.

Disciplining employees should be handled in a structured progressive  process to ensure consistency in application and follow-up on the issues.  If an employee is corrected on an issue, and the issues comes up again, there are multiple corrective steps that should be taken as the severity increases and the decision is made to terminate the relationship.

4 Steps to Progressive Discipline

1.  Verbal Counseling

The first step in a progressive discipline process is to merely have a conversation with the employee.  The conversation should focus on the issue, verification of facts, specifically from the employees’ perspective, clarification of organizational expectations and formal communication about the seriousness of the incident.

This conversation is intended to help the employee understand how their behaviors need to change. It is not fair to surprise an employee with further disciplinary action or termination if they are not aware of the critical nature of the incident.  After the conversation, the manager should document the date, time, location of conversation, content of discussion and agreed upon behavior changes.

2.  Written Warning

The second step should be another conversation that is documented in a written format.  The employee should be coached for a second time about the severity of the issue and how the manager expects their behaviors to change.  The written warning should include a description of the problem, along with the manager’s expectation of the employee’s behavior, description of the consequences, if expectations are not met, and the time frame for meeting expectations.  A copy of the written document should be given to the employee.

3.  Employee Suspension and Improvement Plan

The third step is asking the employee to go home and develop a written plan-of-action for improved performance within 24 hours. The intent of this step is to give the employee a time out to think about the situation and reflect to see if they want to make an effort to improve – and the steps they will take to make that improvement. When the employee returns, the manager should review the improvement plan with the employee and make adjustments as necessary.  Failure to return with an improvement plan should trigger the termination process.

4.  Termination

The fourth and final step is termination.  If the prior three steps are done effectively, this step should not come as a surprise to the employee and there should be sufficient documentation for a successful termination.  Terminations should include a process to make senior leadership aware that the termination is taking place.

Follow-up on employee issues is probably the most critical step in this process and is imperative to ensuring improved employee behaviors.

Finally, disciplining employees is never fun. However, having a structured process to set clear expectations and hold employees accountable for performance and behavior issues can help to ensure a smooth transition in those rare occasions when an employee needs to be terminated.

This article was originally published on April 22, 2011, updated August, 2015..