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How do I address conduct concerns or performance issues? How can I make sure my company is consistent and fair in disciplinary practices? Progressive discipline is an easy way to have clear communication on consequences for failing to follow rules or meet performance standards.

What Is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive discipline is a structured process to address performance and behavioral issues with your employees. These steps can be used to handle lacking job performance or failure to follow rules, policies or procedures. Each step is designed to be more severe than the last, with the last step being termination, hence the term, “progressive.”

Progressive discipline allows a company representative, whether a supervisor or manager, to identify the issue(s) with their employee while still giving the employee opportunity to correct their behavior by outlining clear expectations and consequences should the issue continue. This process is designed to assist supervisors and managers in applying the correct level of discipline and to be fair and consistent while doing so. This process applies to all areas of the company no matter the department or its prestige.

Usually, progressive discipline consists of 4 main steps:

  1. Verbal warning
  2. Written warning
  3. Suspension
  4. Termination

More steps can be added depending on your company’s needs. Coaching can be added before an official verbal warning, or you can add in performance improvement plans or probations, etc. The steps need to be the same for every employee. While consistency is key, you will want to take into account each situation’s unique circumstances.

Should You Use Progressive Discipline at Your Organization?

This is a question that only you can answer. Look at your company’s needs, goals, and structure. Do you have another policy or procedure that is sufficient? If you’re not sure, weigh the pros and cons and discuss with the management team or an employment law attorney if necessary. Make sure what you implement is the best fit for your company and be consistent with it.

Benefits of Progressive Discipline

  • Progressive discipline provides a clear explanation of the company’s expectations.
  • It provides fair and consistent ways to hold your employees accountable.
  • It gives the employee a chance to correct their behavior or comply with a policy they may not have known they were breaking.
  • Encourages open communication between the employee and the management team.

Disadvantages of Progressive Discipline

  • Progressive discipline is not a one-size-fits-all discipline solution. Some situations may warrant more severe disciplinary action than the next step in the progressive discipline process. The same steps may also not work for every company.
  • If progressive discipline is not followed consistently, it can appear that the company is discriminating against an employee.
  • It can make terminating an employee difficult. Some companies may be hesitant if all the steps haven’t been followed.
  • Investigating the issues can be time-consuming but you need to address them ASAP to avoid further misconduct or negative influence.

When Progressive Discipline Should Be Used

This will always vary depending on the situation. Here are some examples where progressive discipline could be used.

Example 1: The Employee Is Not Following the Company Uniform Policy.

If your company has a formal uniform policy and the employee is consistently coming in with their shirt untucked, ripped jeans, and wearing unapproved attire, progressive discipline could be used. For a first-time offense, a coaching or a verbal warning may be appropriate. For continued misbehavior following multiple corrective conversations, you may choose to go to a written warning.

Example 2: The Employee Is Creating a Disruptive Work Environment and Causing Discontent With Co-Workers.

Your employee is a hard worker and produces great results but is constantly disrupting the workday. Constant complaining, gossiping, meddling in everyone else’s life, and not focusing on their own work could require beginning progressive discipline. If after talking to the employee the behavior improves for a while but then begins again, you may move straight to a written warning. Be sure to document the dates you talked to the employee about the issues and advise them if the issues are still happening. The hope is that the written warning will be taken more seriously and motivate the employee to make changes in their behavior.

Example 3: The Employee Is Continuously Committing Minor Infractions, but Nothing Serious Enough To Warrant a Write-Up.

What do you do when you have an employee who continuously is making small mistakes? They aren’t huge infractions, but you are constantly reminding them of small things, a very frustrating situation for the managers.

In this scenario, you may provide a written document with retraining, or a performance improvement plan (PIP). If the employee is new, they need more training or may not have understood what they were trained for and need more help. A PIP may be an option if the employee is tenured, or the issues have been going on for a while, and write-ups and coachings haven’t been effective.

For more information on PIP’s please see here: https://eddy.com/hr-encyclopedia/performance-improvement-plans/

Each Situation Will Be Different

Each situation is going to be different, so look at the entire picture. What is the offense or infraction? How severe is it? Consider if the employee is a serial offender or if the situation is a one-time situation that can easily be rectified? Is progressive discipline the best course of action? Would retraining be more effective in correcting the behavior and retaining the employee?

Don’t forget to document your chosen corrective action. If there isn’t a record, it didn’t happen.

The Process of Progressive Discipline

Step 1: Identify the Issue and Determine if Progressive Discipline Is Needed

Do your research. Check cameras and records, talk to supervisors, and make sure you have documentation and proof of the infraction should the employee ask. Then examine if there has been any documentation of the issue before. Is this a first offense? What’s the severity of the issue?

Step 2: Fill Out the Form and Prepare the Information To Discuss With the Employee

The outline of the progressive discipline form should describe the behavior or performance that needs to be addressed. This can be as detailed as you would like. In listing the details of the violations as outlined in the employee handbook, include specific examples. You want the employee to understand clearly what the issue is.

The next step is to outline expected behavior. This can be accompanied with any training or reference material needed for the employee to understand the expectations. For example, if the employee is not following a policy, you can provide them with a new copy of the policy and go over it with them.

Then identify the level of severity of the infraction. Does it call for a verbal warning, written warning, second written, suspension, etc? If listed as a suspension, there should be notes detailing the length of the suspension. You will also want to identify if the suspension is paid or unpaid.

Make sure to have 3 lines for signatures. The signature line acknowledges the conversation took place. Both the employee and the manager/supervisor should sign. In the event that the employee refuses or you have a witness there, have a line for the witness’s signature as well. Leave room for the employee to write any remarks they wish to the document.

Step 3: Discuss With the Employee

Delivery is everything. Being called into the office to talk to HR or management can cause stress and anxiety. Be sure to be prepared, confident, and keep things positive. These conversations don’t have to be horrible. They can be enlightening and helpful for all involved.

Be sure to give the employee enough notice to make arrangements for their work or travel if they are coming from offsite. Take into consideration any safety and COVID protocols. They should know when and where to meet, and who they are meeting with. Leave the topic of conversation vague.

Once the employee arrives, keep the conversation very focused. If the employee tries to shift blame or bring others into the conversation, help them focus on themselves and their actions. If they have other issues, make a note and advise that you will discuss them after the issue at hand is addressed. Be consistent in your responses and watch your tone. You want the employee to know you care and that you’re talking to them because you want to see them succeed.

Observe the employee to see how they react. If they are getting emotional, defensive, aggressive, etc, listen to what they have to say. Validate their feelings but keep the conversation on the topic. Ask questions to make sure you understand where they are coming from. Don’t take what they have to say personally.

Step 4: Remember the Following Tips

  • Even verbal warnings need to be documented. This can be in any written form, but you want to document when and what you talked about with the employee.
  • Communicate with your management team. If there are employees who report to multiple managers, they need to know who they are talking to about what. If each manager has talked to the employee about the same issue, it’s time to take the next step to resolve the situation.
  • Don’t go in by yourself, especially if the employee is of the opposite gender. Make sure you have a witness available to protect both you and the employee.
  • Don’t forget to remind the employee that signing the form is not an admission of guilt. It’s just an acknowledgment that the conversation happened. They absolutely have the right to disagree and should be allowed to write their statement on the paper as well.
  • Remind them that disciplinary action is kept as confidential as possible and will not be discussed with other employees.
  • Make sure you let them know the next steps. Is this going to affect any bonuses or incentives? How long does the write-up stay in the file? If the issue continues, what will happen next? You will want to be very clear.
  • Keep your ears open for any red flags. When talking to the employee, be mindful of any triggers that may indicate they may need to look at FMLA, ADA, or if they may need to be cleared by a doctor to perform the job duties with or without restrictions. Be sure to address red flags as they arise. Explain why you have a concern, what their rights are, and what the next steps are.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Progressive Discipline

A progressive discipline policy is a guideline to a consistent set of steps in addressing employees’ poor behavior and performance issues.

Depending on the situation, some alternatives are structured or cross training and project assignments. Get your employees involved in creating the solution.

Heather is a driven and experienced human resource professional with management experience in transportation, customer service, and human resources. Heather brings strengths in employment law and compliance, public and employee relations, and documentation management. Heather currently is the Human Resource Manager for SP Plus at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Prior to coming to SP Plus, Heather was an HR department of one, overseeing over 400 employees across 3 states. In this role, she developed her company’s ADA policy and helped them navigate the challenges of the pandemic and the FFCRA laws. Heather currently sits on the board of Directors for the Utah State Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter and holds dual memberships for the state and national levels.

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