A Proactive Approach to Employee Discipline – Progressive Discipline Policy

employee disciplineIt seems logical for an employer to terminate an employee at the first sign of a performance or behavioral issue; however on the contrary an immediate termination can potentially be more costly than keeping the employee on staff. The cost to recruit, attract and select a candidate can range from $1,500 to upwards of $5,000, depending on the number of people involved in the process and their salaries. Through the implementation of a progressive discipline policy, employers can provide a structured corrective action process that seeks to proactively prevent the recurrence of undesirable behavior and/or performance issues.

A progressive discipline policy is valuable because it offers advantages for both employers and employees. From an employee perspective, the increasingly severe penalties imposed for repeated offenses allow employees an opportunity to improve their performance or behavior in each step. The existence of an adequately communicated progressive action policy keeps employees informed about where they stand in a disciplinary situation and what consequences to expect. Employees can also use the progressive discipline documentation to illustrate their improvements during performance appraisals/ reviews. Furthermore, communication among parties is enhanced because both parties are in acknowledgement of poor behavior/ performance, consequences, and tactics to improve and track progress. Employees have a chance to communicate their reasons for their performance or behavior so that both parties can reach an agreeable remedy.

Specifically for managers/ employers, the progressive discipline system is valuable due to the simplicity and consistency of the disciplinary steps. It eliminates the guesswork involved in determining when to end the employment relationship or if the final decision holds merit. Employers can use the system to improve retention by demonstrating that “good” performance/ behavior will yield positive feedback. The system also advocates documentation of each step, which allows employers to maintain personnel files that accurately reflect the employee’s job performance and work history.      

Additionally, a well – structured progressive action policy serves as a strong defense during a wrongful termination lawsuit. The consistent structure helps guide the process and ensures employees are treated fairly and in accordance with company policy. Documentation of an employee’s corrective action plan serves as evidence to prove the employer attempted to correct the problem and treat the employee fairly. If an employee files a formal complaint, lawsuit or alleges they were subjected to unfair employment practices, the employer may be able to reduce their liability for wrongful termination based on documentation outlining the employee’s inappropriate behavior or poor performance.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce encourages the use of progressive discipline for this reason, stating that “A progressive discipline policy provides the business with a system that is fair and easily defensible against a challenge.” 

“Documentation is a fundamental step in the implementation of an effective progressive discipline policy not only because it can reduce legal and financial costs but also because it provides legitimacy to the corrective action plan. Through documentation, the employer can clearly explain the cause for the discipline and outline areas for improvement; while the employee has the opportunity to express their perspective on the issue. Documentation is that extra step that is well worth taking.” – Dana Chatelain, SPHR, Human Resource Manager of SCI Companies.   

The typical stages of progressive discipline systems are counseling, verbal warning, written warning, suspension and finally, separation/discharge (termination).

  • Stage 1: Counseling – The objective of counseling is to improve employee behavior and clarify expectations. It is a direct approach to address personal or organizational issues negatively affecting job performance or overall behavior.
  • Stage 2: Verbal Warning – This is a documented counseling conversation with an employee to specifically outline the issue, get to the root cause by providing guidelines and outlining expected improvement and consequences.
  •   Stage 3: Written Warning – This is a documented written statement that specifically outlines the recurring behavior, violation and expectations for improvement and potential consequences for recurring behavior.
  • Stage 4: Suspension: If there is no further improvement, a suspension ranging from one day to two weeks or more may be issued depending upon the seriousness of the infraction.
  •  Stage 5Separation/Discharge – Separation/Discharge, also called termination, results when the employee’s behavior has still not improved. It can also occur without prior disciplinary action in case of serious offenses (or gross misconduct) like theft of company property, assault, etc.

An overall Best Practice recommendation is to clearly document poor work performance and/or inappropriate work behaviors at each stage of the process by using standard forms. Documentation should show at one or more points during the progressive method that the employee’s position was in jeopardy if he/she did not demonstrate improvement.

Additional HR Best Practices

  • Address any violation immediately to avoid escalation of the issue.
  • Ensure an effective and fair disciplinary process by avoiding discriminatory behavior or personal bias.
  • Provide effective criticism to offenders focusing on behavior or performance issue, not on the person or personality.
  • Include all progressive discipline forms and documents in the employee’s personnel file track progress of behavior and/or performance.
  • Apply the progressive discipline steps consistently to all employees.
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