Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Take care of your people and protect your business

Disciplining employees is often one of the hardest parts of human resource work. Having a clear and well-defined progressive disciplinary policy not only protects your company, but shows your employees that you create a culture of trust and honesty.

What is Employee Discipline?

Many HR professionals find employee discipline to be one of the most difficult and taxing parts of HR. Especially if you are new to leading this process, it’s easy to feel uncertain or stressed. Fortunately, there are helpful attitudes and actions to take.

Employee discipline is the action of a company when an employee doesn’t follow the company’s rules and policies. Employee discipline should be positive, and contribute to a safe and pleasant work environment for everyone. The focus is not on punishment and consequences, but rather on plans for improvement and growth.

The Importance of Creating and Following an Employee Discipline Policy

An effective discipline policy is beneficial to both the employee and the employer. It gives employees the opportunity to develop and improve. It also protects the employer if the employee was later terminated.

  • Employee Growth – A successful business helps their employees improve and grow. Through a progressive discipline policy, you can help employees address their mistakes and become greater contributors to the business.
  • Employer Protection – Some employees fight termination or other disciplinary action, and the conflict may become a legal case. Creating and following a discipline policy will ensure you have documentation and help you remain fair in your decisions, ultimately protecting your business.
  • Fair Workplace – A policy also makes sure that everyone is treated fairly. You will follow and document the same process for everyone, helping to avoid any biases or discrimination

What to Include in Your Policy

Every policy should be clearly written and given to employees. It should include the rules and examples of some behaviors that might lead to disciplinary action. You should include the steps and actions that the company will take when there are infractions or misconduct. Many companies choose to include a statement that protects their right to terminate employees at will.

Progressive Discipline: The Most-used Disciplinary Method

Progressive discipline provides a series of steps that are followed and documented by HR or the supervisor. This process ensures that the supervisor or HR clearly communicates with the employee throughout the whole process.

The purpose of progressive discipline is to help the employee create a plan of action and improve their overall work performance. Rather than punishing the employee, the supervisor works with them. Only after repeated offenses or in extreme circumstances will this process result in stronger discipline such as suspension or termination.

How to Discipline an Employee Using Progressive Discipline

Before you start disciplining, you must have a fair workplace. All employees have the right to know what is expected of them. Rules and policies should be clearly communicated, written, compliant with state laws, and fairly enforced.

Step 1: Investigate Misconduct

All claims of infractions or misconduct should be thoroughly investigated.The investigation should be prompt, fair, and thorough to ensure that the supervisor or HR representative has valid facts.

Step 2: Counseling and Verbal Warning

At this step, the supervisor brings the problem to the attention of the employee. The nature of the problem and violation of the policies should be discussed, as well as clear expectations of correct behavior. The supervisor and employee can also create steps to resolve the problem and improve performance.

Counseling and a verbal warning can be separate steps, with the counseling being more informal and pre-emptive and the verbal warning more formal. The decision depends on individual circumstances and your policy.

Even though this is a verbal warning, the supervisor should still maintain a written record of the counsel or verbal warning as proof in case the problem persists.

Step 3: Written Warning

If the problem continues or a new problem arises, a written warning follows the verbal warning. The document clearly states the infraction and the consequences of a repeat offense.

It is best for the immediate supervisor and/or manager to meet with the employee and review the written warning with them. The supervisor should clearly communicate expectations and outline consequences for failure.

Step 4: Final Written Warning and/or Suspension

Many employers have a final written warning which might be paired with suspension. The final written warning will have similar details to the written warning. Suspension should be approved by a manager and HR, and may be without pay depending on state and local laws.

If an investigation disproves the suspended employee’s wrongdoing, it is suggested that the employer restores the employee’s pay. This means that the employee is paid out for their lost work.

There are other options besides suspension before firing someone. Depending on your company, you may decide to consider these options as part of this step.

  • Withhold compensation increases – If a problem continues, an employer might withhold future raises until the problem is solved.
  • Transfer – A transfer to a different department or role may be tried before suspension or termination.
  • Demotion – Some employees may perform better at a lower level, so it may be appropriate to demote them.

Step 5: Termination

Termination is always the last step. Any decision to terminate should be approved by HR and an upper-level manager. Some companies decide that final approval should come from the CEO.

Many companies fill out a form, similar to a final written warning, that explains the situation and shows the approval of the necessary personnel in the termination. If necessary, this can be used as proof that the company followed the correct procedures.

The Dos and Don’ts of Employee Discipline

Disciplining an employee is hard, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and get caught up in the steps. Here are some helpful reminders.


  • Act promptly – Don’t wait to talk to the employee and address the issue. If you quickly talk to them and are specific in explaining the problem, it can help them improve quicker and nip the problem in the bud.
  • Consult with employee’s supervisors: Before and during disciplinary action, it can be beneficial to consult with the supervising team. Together you can gather information, discuss the problem, and share perspectives on how to address the issue.
  • Document everything –  Document everything, even verbal discussions and written warnings,. It signifies permanency to the employee and can protect the employer in the event of legal action. Keep all documents and disciplines in the employee’s file.
  • Discipline with fairness – An employee is much more likely to accept the consequences of their action when they believe they are treated fairly. Fairness will also prevent discrimination claims that might come against the employer.
  • Follow up – Check in with the employee to see their progress and provide more feedback. Let them know you care and want to help.


  • Don’t assume they know the problem – It is highly possible the employee doesn’t even recognize what they are doing wrong. When talking to them, explain the problem to them.
  • Don’t make it personal – Whatever the problem is, don’t make it too personal to them. Keep the focus on the job and their work. Bringing in personal attacks thatare irrelevant to their job could be considered discrimination and will only escalate tension.
  • Don’t give empty consequences – If the employee has not improved and the problem persists, make sure you keep your word and uphold the consequences you explained to them.
  • Don’t assume it’s over – After a verbal warning, it might be easy to believe that the employee will fix the problem. This might result in a lack of documentation, which can come back to haunt HR if the problem is not fixed. Don’t assume the problem is fixed or over until it really is.

Take care of your people and protect your business

Track essential employee data, digitize your manual HR processes, and improve your employee experience with Eddy People.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Employee Discipline

An employee cannot be fired or disciplined for off-duty misconduct unless it carries over into the workday. For example, an employee has the right to consume alcohol when they are not at work; but if the employee comes to work under the influence, the employer can take action against them.

Each state has different laws regarding what the employer can and can’t do, and it is important that each employer looks up their local laws and writes their policies accordingly.

The employer should be careful to avoid any impulsive action. Make sure you have all the facts before taking an action on off-duty misconduct.

There are no time limits in regards to disciplining an employee. However, the sooner the better. Excessive delays can be unconvincing and hurt the employers’ defense in a disciplinary case.

Generally, no. An employer may discipline an employee only once for the same offense. This includes warnings, suspension, and even termination. Similarly, an employer can’t take away a disciplinary decision and substitute a harsher consequence.

However, an employer can use past conduct to make a “cumulative just cause” argument. If there is more than one instance of misconduct and the employer followed the progressive discipline system, the employee can then be disciplined again. However, the original conduct cannot be the sole reason for the termination.

“Gross misconduct is referred to when an employee has done something over the top. More than just a regular infraction that could be resolved with progressive discipline, and possibly borderline extreme in some circumstances.

It may be a combination of several things that alone they can be resolved with a coaching or some type of progressive discipline, but by having them all happen at the same time it makes the situation so severe to be labeled as gross misconduct. Some examples would be if an employee is spending a substantial amount of time on the clock not working, inappropriate conversations, and falsification of records. Those combined could be considered gross misconduct.

Any violence, threats, aggressiveness is usually labeled as gross misconduct. Other examples could be if the employee purposely does something that hurts another employee in any way – physically, emotionally, mentally – or contributes to what can be considered a hostile work environment.

Most employee handbooks have a section that lists things that would warrant immediate termination. Those would be considered gross misconduct.” – Heather Anderson SHRM-CP

Katie is currently studying at BYU, with a HRM major and Statistics minor. She works there as an HR research assistant and also works as an HR Generalist at a local company, and both jobs provide her with a wide variety of experiences. Katie’s passion lies in HR and People Analytics, where she can discover and use data to help everyone understand and improve the workplace for a universal benefit.

Want to contribute to our HR Encyclopedia?

Other Related Terms

Posts You Might Like

Easier HR for local businesses

With Eddy’s all-in-one HR Suite you can hire, onboard, manage, and pay employees with one easy-to-use platform. No headache required.

📖 HR Encyclopedia Weekly 🗓

Sign up for weekly insights from the world’s largest HR encyclopedia

Scroll to Top

Submit a Question