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Employee Disciplinary Action: Effective Tactics to Try

Disciplinary action can be a necessary and beneficial component to a healthy and productive workplace. Knowing when to use disciplinary action and the best way to apply it can ensure that both you and your employees benefit as much as possible.

Below, we discuss what employee disciplinary action is, different approaches you can take to implement the most effective disciplinary actions and answer a few frequently asked questions related to employee discipline.

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What is disciplinary action?

Disciplinary action in the workplace is a method to stop an employee from continuing an unwanted behavior or reprimand them for breaking company rules and policies. It is put into place to ensure that employees are safe and that disruptions to the workplace (e.g., inappropriate behavior, failure to meet goals) are kept to a minimum.

The goal of disciplinary action is to inform the employee of the issue, provide them with opportunities to improve, prevent a negative impact on other employees and protect the interests of the company and staff. Above all, discipline in the workplace deters employees from acting in a manner that may be harmful to the success of a company.

It’s important to clearly outline the expectations you have regarding employee behavior and performance in your company handbook. You should also include the disciplinary action you will take if employees participate in behavior that goes against these expectations. This ensures that employees are well-informed about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate within the workplace.

Disciplinary action prompts employees to:

  • Observe rules and regulations
  • Improve their future behavior and performance
  • Function in a team-based environment
  • Meet organizational expectations

Ways to approach employee disciplinary actions

Disciplinary action can be written, verbal or involve the suspension of the employee’s privileges, like a company credit card, depending on the stage of the process. The following are several methods of employee disciplinary action that an organization may use:

Progressive discipline

One of the most commonly used disciplinary actions within the workplace is progressive discipline. Progressive discipline is when disciplinary action becomes increasingly serious if an employee does not make the desired improvements. This discipline method often involves regular check-ins, attainable and measurable goals and other processes that help employees if they don’t meet their goals.

For example, let’s say you issue an employee a verbal warning at the onset of the undesired behavior. If the employee does not correct the behavior, they will receive a written warning or be asked to attend a disciplinary meeting with their supervisors to discuss a plan for performance improvement. Progressive discipline can protect organizations against legal action as well as provide employees with ample opportunity to improve and remain employed at the company.

Keep in mind that progressive discipline may not be the best option for more serious violations that require immediate action (e.g., assault).


Positive discipline

The positive discipline approach focuses on emphasizing the positive aspects of an employee’s good behavior rather than only discussing and reprimanding the negative aspects. This approach typically involves the use of constructive criticism as well as the encouragement of employee participation in disciplinary actions taken. Additionally, you can incorporate positive reinforcement into this disciplinary approach to reward employees as they make positive changes related to unwanted behavior. Positive reinforcement is also often used in the organization as a whole to prevent misbehavior.

For example, a company may implement rewards or recognition for employees who consistently work hard and comply with or exceed the company’s standards. This, in turn, may motivate the employees who do not work hard consistently to increase their output. It’s important to note that while the focus of positive discipline is to prevent or quickly correct misbehavior, disciplinary action is still taken when it’s called for.

Related: How to Motivate Your Employees

Suspensions or reassignment

Suspensions or reassignment typically occur when there is a severe behavioral issue or conflict that warrants this method but does not warrant termination. Reassignment may refer to retraining or placing an employee in a different work environment, and suspension refers to temporarily removing an employee from the workplace, usually without pay.

How to discipline an employee

It’s important to discipline employees who do not adhere to policies consistently to promote workplace productivity and peace. Here are some steps to consider taking to discipline an employee:

1. Review laws about employee discipline

Laws about employee discipline may vary depending on the state you live in and the issue you’re disciplining an employee for. Most laws do not specify what you can discipline your employees for. But federal and state laws have certain mandates that broadly cover employee discipline and termination.

Therefore, it’s essential to review the laws you must adhere to in your state before you begin the disciplinary process.

2. Refer to your employee handbook

Your employee handbook should detail your policies and disciplinary process for each infraction. These policies should establish clear rules for your employees so they know what behavior is unacceptable. Highlight the rules your employee violated and refer to the employee handbook during your meeting with the employee in case they have questions about why they’re being disciplined.

Some rules and regulations you may have in your employee handbook are:

3. Conduct a meeting with the employee

A verbal warning is often the first step of a disciplinary action process. Before you meet with the employee, cultivate an open and helpful mindset. Try to think about discipline as a corrective measure that helps your employees to develop and grow rather than viewing discipline as a punishment. Let the employee know that they’re being disciplined and discuss the reasons with them. Be prepared to answer their questions and outline what you’re willing to do to help them correct their behavior.

Conduct the meeting in a private office where others can’t hear the discussion. You should also consider informing HR of this first warning or including them in the discussion along with keeping written records of the conversations you hold.

4. Document employee discipline

Consider documenting all employee discipline as you move through the disciplinary process. Include signatures, notes and statements in the employee file just in case the discipline leads to termination or legal action. It may also be helpful to document issues as they happen so you can have accurate dates and records of policy violations. For example, you may note each instance your employee came in late and bring up your expectations each time it occurs. This helps the employee know how serious the matter is.

5. Follow up

Follow up with the employee a week or two after you discipline them to assess their progress and check up on how they’re doing. After some time has passed, the employee may also be more willing to ask questions and discuss any concerns they have about the discipline you gave them.

6. Issue a written warning

If you follow up and there’s been no improvement after a reasonable period of time, a more formal and written notice is typically the next step in the process. Use a disciplinary action form to document and describe the issue as well as the corrective actions that will take place if the situation remains unchanged. It’s often helpful to refer to the earlier conversations held with the employees and to warn them of a possible privilege suspension or termination.

The employee should read and sign that document to show they understand its content. This formal notice marks the beginning of a probation period during which you or other management will observe the employee.

Read more: Employee Warning Notice: A Template for Issuing a Warning

7. Hold a disciplinary meeting

The next step is usually a meeting with the employee, an HR representative and yourself. During this meeting, discuss the incident and notify the employee of the possible consequences if there’s no improvement, which could potentially include termination, depending on your employee discipline policy.

8. Consider suspending privileges

If the employee’s behavior or performance remains unsatisfactory, employees typically receive penalties that are outlined in your employee discipline policy (e.g., suspension of pay, credit card use or company car).

9. Issue a termination or PIP

If no progress is made or inappropriate behaviors continue, termination may be an option. If you’re confident that the non-performing employee can improve, you can introduce a performance improvement plan before the written warning. A performance improvement plan or PIP is a formal document that describes performance expectations. It includes a timeline and clear goals. A PIP involves regular meetings with the supervisor and HR to follow up on the employee’s progress towards performance objectives.

Tips to consider when implementing an employee discipline policy

Consider these tips when designing or implementing an employee discipline policy in the workplace:

  • Clearly outline the expected behaviors and the unacceptable behaviors in the employee handbook. Make sure that all employees have access to it.
  • Only implement disciplinary actions that have been clearly noted in the employee handbook.
  • The disciplinary action you take for similar situations must be consistent to avoid claims of discrimination by employees.
  • The action taken to reprimand an employee should suit the behavior or issue.
  • Keep a written log of all disciplinary action taken against an employee, even if the action is only verbal in nature.
  • Give employees the opportunity to respond to disciplinary action and do not dismiss their opinions and interpretations of the situation. 

See 14 more policies your business should have.

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Disciplinary action FAQs

Who should be involved in employee disciplinary action?

While each situation will be different, in most instances the employee’s manager or supervisor as well as the human resources department should be part of the process. While the HR department doesn’t always need to be directly involved, you should keep them informed about the actions you took in relation to employee discipline so that they can keep a record.

How do you know which disciplinary action is appropriate?

Many disciplinary actions are at the discretion of the manager. However, the disciplinary action taken should be aligned with the behavior. Consider the following factors when determining which action to take:

  • How severe was the behavior?
  • Does the employee have a history of previous misconduct or is this their first offense?
  • How long has the employee worked at your organization?
  • How have you dealt with similar situations in the past?

Can you communicate to an employee that their behavior is unacceptable without formal disciplinary action?

In many cases, a supervisor can clearly and effectively communicate to the employee that their behavior is not up to par without having to issue a formal warning. This can be done by scheduling an informal meeting or counseling session where the supervisor clearly expresses their concerns regarding the employee’s behavior. The supervisor should give the employee the opportunity to respond as well as time to make behavioral changes before moving on to a more formal approach to discipline.

How do I explain to an employee why they are being disciplined in a calm and effective manner?

The best way to explain discipline to an employee is to think about the good qualities the employee has before you begin the conversation. This may help you to feel calm and balanced when you talk to the employee. You should phrase your statements in a way that prevents the employee from feeling targeted. Explain why their behavior is an issue in the workplace and let them know how it affects others. Usually, when someone is aware of the impact their actions have on others, they want to fix it.

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