Progressive Discipline: Steps for Creating Workplace Policy

Updated February 3, 2023

Progressive discipline is a structured corrective action process designed to address employee performance and behavioral issues. Its aim is to help managers and supervisors enforce disciplinary action by offering employees an opportunity to correct issues before escalating punishment. Learning more about progressive discipline can help you develop the skills necessary to manage employee behavior and performance in a fair and structured manner. 

In this article, we define progressive discipline, describe its importance in the workplace, provide three common levels of punishment and offer steps and tips for how to implement a progressive discipline policy at work.

What is progressive discipline?

Progressive discipline is an approach that uses a graduated system of discipline to address behavioral and performance issues. The purpose of progressive discipline is to provide employees with a reasonable opportunity to correct and improve issues, while also providing fair notice of the consequences of not correcting those issues. The exact disciplinary measures taken depend on the severity and frequency of the underlying issues and the company's specific rules and procedures. While the procedure is typically a sequence of steps, each manager can reserve the right to take appropriate action on a case-by-case basis.

Why is progressive discipline important?

Progressive discipline is important for several reasons, including:

  • Allows managers to recognize and address problematic employee behavior before it escalates

  • Helps employees to be more productive and perform at higher levels

  • Fosters better communication between employees and managers

  • Increases employee retention rates and decreases employee replacement expenses

  • Ensures employees understand why they're receiving discipline and what their expectations are

  • Provides employees with several opportunities to improve before resorting to more severe disciplinary actions

Related: Q&A: What Are Employee Retention Rates?

What is a progressive discipline policy?

A progressive discipline policy is an approach that informs employees of the actions managers can take when improvement or change is necessary. The policy should clearly show employees the steps they can anticipate if they display unsatisfactory performance. Employers typically include this policy in the employee handbook to ensure all employees have access to it. While it can vary based on the company and its needs, a progressive discipline policy often follows a similar structure that escalates consequences after failure to correct behavior. 

Related: Creating an Employee Handbook

3 levels of progressive discipline

While each organization uses different policies when practicing progressive discipline, the following are the most common discipline levels: 

1. Verbal warning

A verbal warning occurs when a manager or supervisor notifies the employee of the need for improvement. The manager may schedule a one-on-one meeting with the team member to discuss the issue of concern and how the employee can improve their performance. The manager should ensure the employee fully understands the issue discussed and is clear on expectations for how to correct the issue. This professional may also maintain written documentation of the issue and the conversation for future reference.

Related: How To Issue a Verbal Warning in 8 Steps (With Tips)

2. Written warning

A written warning is when a manager gives the employee a notice in writing that their performance has not improved after a verbal warning. The written notice includes all pertinent details related to the issue as well as previous attempts to inform the employee of the need for change. Some employers may also issue a second written warning before moving to a final course of action.

A performance improvement plan (PIP) is a formal written plan that details a deadline for the employee to address the issue and improve their performance. For example, a PIP may state that an employee has 60 days to meet performance expectations. The PIP should include specific details as to what improvements may be helpful and how the employee can make them. Additionally, it may include any required training and a schedule of follow-up meetings to monitor progress.

Related: What To Include in an Employee Write-Up

3. Final course of action

The final course of action occurs after all the above steps have concluded and the issue hasn't substantially improved. There are several options a company may take for the final course of action, including:

  • Suspension of the employee, with or without pay

  • Transfer of the employee to a more suitable role

  • Demotion of the employee to a lower responsibility position

  • Termination of the employee's employment contract

Related: Termination Policy: Letter of Separation (With 2 Samples)

How to implement progressive discipline in the workplace

The following five steps can help you implement a progressive discipline approach at work:

1. Clearly define steps

Ensure employees have a clear understanding of the steps you plan to take in the instance that disciplinary action is required. Consider describing the company's disciplinary policy as soon as an employee begins work and holding regular training sessions to maintain understanding. If employees have any questions about discipline policy, create a simple way for them to receive answers.

Related: How To Successfully Onboard Employees in 7 Steps (With Tips)

2. Investigate before assigning discipline

When an issue arises with an employee, ensure you fully understand the situation and its cause before taking disciplinary action. This may require you to interview other team members, though it's important to do this without revealing your intentions for the sake of employee confidentiality. You may also want to monitor the employee's performance for days or weeks to gather the data you need to support disciplinary action.

3. Document all progressive disciplinary actions

When you do choose to discipline an employee, keep written documentation of each step of the progressive discipline approach. Include all relevant information in your documentation, including what the issue is, the dates the behavior occurred, when you issued warnings to the employee and the impact of the issue on productivity. This can help you manage the employee's discipline plan if they fail to change behavior in the future.

4. Stay consistent

It's important to remain fair and consistent in the disciplinary actions you take. If two employees exhibit the same unwanted behaviors, use the same approach for both of them. This can show that the policy is unbiased and can apply regardless of personal feelings.

Related: Different Types of Cognitive Bias (Plus Why It's Important)

5. Check employee improvement

Keep track of the employee's improvement after issuing warnings or other disciplinary actions. If they don't make satisfactory improvements, move on to the next step in your progressive discipline plan. Try to document unwanted behavior to help justify escalating discipline. For example, if an employee frequently arrives late to work, keep a time log of when they arrive to see if they improve their behavior.

Related: How To Help an Underperforming Employee

Tips for communicating discipline to team members

Once you've begun a progressive discipline policy, you may want to use these tips to help you clearly define expectations for all relevant parties:

Document conversations

Maintain detailed records of all disciplinary actions taken and keep human resources updated on the status of the employee's response to the actions. Be sure to follow all required steps for reporting and documenting issues. This can help legitimize the discipline process and allow you to answer any employee questions.

Related: What Is the Importance of Taking Meeting Minutes? (With 12 Templates)

Begin the process promptly

Promptly implement a progressive disciplinary action after becoming aware of an issue. Schedule a meeting with the employee to discuss the issue and review any documentation. During the discussion, ask the employee what they need from you to be successful. While you may want to gather some research before beginning the discipline process, you can begin this information gathering as soon as possible. You may also want to talk with the employee as soon as you can to get their side of the story.

Follow up by email

Summarize your conversation with the employee in an email so that the conversation is time-stamped and documented. This confirms your mutual understanding of the situation. It also creates a record of the steps you took to describe the situation.

Invite an HR rep to mediate

Consider having a third-party witness, such as a human resources representative, attend meetings if you feel such a step would help foster open communication between you and the employee. This can allow the meeting to remain unbiased. If necessary, a third party can help resolve any conflicts that arise.

Related: What Is a Mediator? Definition, Roles and Steps

Confirm that the employee understands the situation

Thoroughly explain the issue, how it affects the workplace and why it needs to change to the employee so they're motivated to improve. At this time, be sure to answer any questions that the employee might have. If necessary, direct the employee toward resources that can help them improve behavior.

Specify the impact

Without being overly negative, you can calmly explain how long the disciplinary action may be active in the employee's file and how this action would impact internal transfer opportunities, merit increases and promotions. You can also describe the positive impacts that behavior change can offer. Rather than scaring the employee, try to inspire them to change behavior by remaining realistic about the opportunities they have for improvement.

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