How to Establish a Progressive Employee Disciplinary System

When you hire an employee, you expect them to work hard, be productive, and contribute to a positive work environment. Unfortunately that’s not always what you get. When an employee’s performance or attitude falls short of expectations, you may need to take disciplinary action.

To ensure you have a plan in place to deal with wayward employees, establish a formal disciplinary system before performance and attitude problems surface.

A disciplinary system should take progressive steps toward helping employees improve their performance or attitude. At the same time, the system should lay the groundwork via proper substantiation and documentation for termination of employees who are not able to make the necessary improvements within a reasonable (and well-defined) period of time.

A progressive disciplinary system should include the following steps. Be sure to document each step in writing:

  1. Employee counseling, coaching, and instruction: This is the first, and usually least threatening and difficult, disciplinary step. Handled properly and early enough in the process, it can often nip employee performance and attitude problems in the bud. When you first see an employee’s performance or attitude heading in the wrong direction, sit down with the employee for a formal discussion of the problem. Be specific in your critique and offer constructive criticism and solutions. Consider presenting the employee with a formal performance improvement plan that details measurable goals and objectives and time frames for achieving them.
  2. Verbal reprimand: If the employee’s performance or attitude doesn’t improve within a specified period of time, a more serious verbal reprimand may be in order. This takes counseling and instruction a step further by formally voicing your concerns about the employee’s failure to improve. Have another manager present at the time of the reprimand for substantiation, and give the employee a specified time frame to improve performance.
  3. Formal written warning: This should detail the employee’s performance or attitude problems and the specific actions he or she must take (and by when) to avoid termination. Provide a copy to the employee and also place a copy in his or her permanent employment file, and schedule a follow-up meeting on the deadline specified in the warning to gauge progress.
  4. Suspension from work: This may be included in a progressive disciplinary system as a last step before termination. Suspensions usually range from one to five days, after which time the employee may be given one final opportunity and deadline to meet the goals and objectives detailed in the performance improvement plan or written warning.

Keep these points in mind as you establish a progressive disciplinary system:

  • Formal job descriptions should exist for each position in your company, and your performance improvement plan, counseling, and instruction should all line up with these descriptions.
  • The specific steps in your progressive disciplinary system should be spelled out in your employee handbook so employees know what to expect in disciplinary situations.
  • The disciplinary process and practices should remain consistent over time, and from one employee to the next, and should follow the steps detailed in your employee handbook.
  • Disciplinary action should be consistent with the degree or severity of the performance or attitude problem. In other words, make sure the punishment fits the crime.


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