Using Progressive Discipline in the Workplace

Category: Articles
Author Name: TrainingABC
Posted: 04-22-2020 03:54 AM
Views: 5497
Synopsis: Progressive discipline is one of the best ways for organizations to stay out of court but it's also an effective way to turn performance around and transform a low performing employee into a valuable asset.

Progressive discipline is a series of clearly defined steps for managers to take when faced with employee performance or conduct problems.


Each step is designed both as an opportunity for managers to correct performance problems and to protect themselves and their organizations from litigation. Each step in the process is progressively more serious and leads to the final step of termination if the employee’s performance or conduct issue is not corrected. The number of steps used in the policy is less important than how the steps are used.


Progressive discipline is most effective when each step is taken as a serious opportunity to correct employee problems rather than to simply apply discipline.


Improving employee performance reduces turnover, increases productivity, and leads to greater success as an organization.  Additionally, if the employee’s conduct fails to improve, this genuine effort is looked upon favorably by the courts should litigation arise.


A successful progressive discipline policy starts with clearly defined policies, rules and performance standards.   When policies or rules are violated or performance standards are not achieved, employees will know that they will be held accountable in the same consistent manner as their co-workers.


The progressive discipline policy itself must be clearly defined and follow the same steps every time.  Using the policy in an inconsistent manner is counterproductive to solving performance issues and could lead to the legal troubles that the policy was designed to alleviate.




Thoroughly documenting every step of the progressive discipline process is essential.  Early in the process documentation can be less formal and recorded in a performance log or journal.


A performance log is a journal of employee performance.  The log can be in electronic or paper form and each entry must be marked with a date and a time. For instance, if the performance issue is chronic tardiness, managers should document each time an employee is tardy and each time that employee was given a verbal warning for that tardiness.


In the more formal steps of the process, documentation should be much more official and detailed, but in either case it is critical that documentation contain only job-related facts and not emotional judgments. Job-related facts are more effective when resolving performance issues and emotional judgments reflect poorly in court if documentation is subpoenaed in a lawsuit.




Emotion play a large role in progressive discipline. Managers are human and they are not immune to emotional decision making.  However, managers are held to a higher standard by both the courts and their organizations.  


Making rash or emotional employment decisions almost always leads to an undesirable outcome.  An effective progressive discipline plan hinges on staying calm and following procedure. 


Managers must keep to the plan and avoid emotionally charged language.  By using job-related observable facts and remaining calm, managers can avoid many of the pitfalls that often accompany the process.


The Steps of Progressive Discipline


This course details the most common steps used in progressive discipline policies.


Initial Counseling Sessions


Not every performance or conduct issue leads immediately to formal progressive discipline.  Issues such as a temporary decline in productivity, tardiness, or a minor safety violation should be handled in a less formal manner when they first occur.


An initial counseling session is an effective way to informally resolve a minor performance issue. The counseling session should occur in private and provide a thorough explanation of the problem using the performance log if necessary.   When confronted with documentation the employee is less likely to become defensive or combative and more amenable to correcting the issue. 


Communication is essential in all steps of the process including the initial counseling session. The feedback received in this session may enable the manager to correct problems immediately. For example, there may be an issue beyond the employee’s control causing the issue.  For instance, tardiness might be caused by a sick family member or a transportation issue which is only temporary. Often, employees will reveal something that their manager is doing that is inhibiting their performance and a simple fix will solve the issue.


Once they receive feedback, managers and employees should work together to establish a plan to resolve the issue.  Coming to a mutual agreement will give the plan a better chance for success. The plan should focus on specific steps and have a specific date by which the performance problems must be resolved.  Generalizations lead to misunderstandings.


For instance: “Starting today, mandated workplace safety rules must be followed 100% of the time.” Rather than, “You have to get better at following safety rules.”  The second statement is open to interpretation while the first statement leaves no room for confusion.


Lastly, document the counseling session in the performance log.  The date, time and a thorough account of the meeting should be noted.


Formal Oral Warning


If the initial counseling session does not correct the performance issue or the problem is more serious in nature, then the next step is a formal oral warning.


This warning should be given in a private location in job specific language.  Avoid emotional or personal language and focus on job specific facts. Stress the seriousness of the situation along with the consequences of failing to improve the issue.


Focus on correcting the issue by detailing the specific steps needed to fix the behavior along with a date by which the issue will be corrected.  Encourage feedback and, if necessary, agree on a different course of action.  Working together with the employee is always the best path to a successful resolution. Schedule a follow-up meeting and thoroughly document the meeting in your performance log.


While most oral warning meetings run smoothly, there will be occasions when the employee does not agree with the assessment or documentation. When this happens, note the employee’s objection and offer them the opportunity to appeal to a higher level of management or provide a written rebuttal for his or her file.  It’s important the process is fair and open.


The Formal Written Warning


The formal written warning is an official document that will be placed in the employee’s file. The serious nature of the formal written warning should be clearly addressed.


The warning should be written with job specific information, a date by which the performance issues must be corrected, and the penalty for not correcting them by that date.


Finally, the document must be signed by both the manager and the employee. Documentation that an attempt was made to correct performance issues is a critical defense in the event of a lawsuit. 


An honest, open and fair approach is always the best policy.  All documentation pertaining to the performance issue or violation such as sales figures, production numbers, or the manager’s performance log should be presented at the meeting and kept in the employee’s file. At every stage of the process the focus should be on correcting the problem and retaining the employee. 


Continue to solicit feedback and openly communicate with the employee to create the best plan to improve performance.  Adjustments and corrections to the original plan should be made if necessary. 


Lastly, give the employee a copy of the formal written warning and allow the opportunity to appeal to a higher level of management and to provide a written rebuttal for their personnel file.


The Final Written Warning


The final written warning is the last step before termination and the last chance for an employee to improve performance and/or conduct. This final warning must state that this is the last warning before termination and clearly detail the steps needed to remain employed.


Both the employee and manager must sign and date the warning and it must be placed in the employee’s permanent file.


Managers should still be open to feedback from the employee and be dedicated to correcting the performance or conduct issues that led to this step; however, the very serious nature of the final warning should be communicated to the employee.


This step gives the employee the opportunity to remain employed or to end the employment by not resolving the problems or conduct that led to this stage.




If all the steps in the progressive discipline policy have failed to improve performance or conduct, then termination is the last step in the process.


Terminations should not come as a surprise to employees because they have been included in every step of the process and have been given every chance to succeed.


If all the steps of the progressive discipline process have been followed and thoroughly documented, managers and their employers should be on solid legal ground.  However, before terminating an employee seek legal guidance from human resources or an attorney to ensure that EEO and all other laws have been followed.


When possible, a termination meeting should occur early in the day and early in the week, so that you are available to answer questions and provide documentation.


Even within a progressive discipline system, terminations can be very emotional for both managers and employees. Treat employees with respect by being honest and direct.  Inform them of the termination immediately and explain the reasons for the termination with as few words as possible. Managers must avoid emotion and keep the meeting focused on job related facts.  While the employee may act emotionally, managers cannot. 


End the meeting by sincerely thanking the employee for their contributions and then give them some time to collect themselves.  By treating the employee with respect throughout the process, lawsuits, violence, revenge and other negative outcomes are greatly reduced.


Immediate Discharge


Even when an employer utilizes a progressive discipline policy, there are times when employees may be terminated immediately.


For instance, when employees have engaged in egregious activities such as gross negligence, theft, fraud, embezzlement, drug use or other illegal activities then the progressive discipline process does not need to be engaged.


In Conclusion


Following consistent progressive discipline procedures is critical to effective management.  Employees are an expensive and vital investment and taking the time to correct problems is a far more cost-effective strategy than a quick termination.


The object of any progressive discipline policy is, first and foremost, to correct performance issues and develop high performing employees.  However, by following the steps of the process, managers also protect themselves and their organizations from legal liability.

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