What Is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive discipline procedures exist in most corporate workplaces. A progressive discipline procedure is a process implemented to address behavior on the job that does not meet the stated performance standards of the organization. The main purpose of a progressive discipline process is to aid employees as they aim to understand that their performance is not meeting the employer’s stated performance standards and must be improved. The progressive discipline process is highlighted by efforts that are formal in nature to allow employers to provide employees with feedback to address a potential problem. Through this mechanism, an employer is able to convey to the employee the need to improve job performance if the employee wants to continue to be employed.

Progressive discipline should not be viewed as a punishment mechanism for employees. Rather, it is a process that ultimately allows an employer to assist their employees in overcoming performance-related issues to satisfy the employer’s expectations. More importantly, the progressive discipline process allows employers to provide employees with counseling about poor performance and make sure the employee understands the requirements for improvement. During this process, you can also ascertain whether the employee could be dealing with personal issues that may be contributing to the performance issues.

Through the progressive discipline process, the employer is able to determine whether the employee seems incapable of improvement despite intervention and repeated performance warnings. If this is the case, termination may need to be the ultimate result. Other steps that can be taken in the process include issuing a written warning that is placed in the employee’s personnel file with the goal of getting the employee’s performance to improve.

Most employers are strongly encouraged to continue the progressive discipline process if the employer has a sense that the employee is making a constructive effort to get his/her performance up to the employer’s standards. Progressive discipline can only be successful if the employer is serious about providing employees with the assistance to become a valued member of the company. In today’s workplace, progressive discipline processes are most frequently utilized when an organization uses the process for its hourly paid employees. Salaried employees usually are issued written warnings and then either improve or begin looking for new employment.

One other benefit of progress discipline is the ability for an organization to identify poor performers, who have been ineffective and unwilling to improve, to terminate their employment in a fair manner with adequate documentation. The process allows an employer to implement a system that provides for a graduated scale of employer responses to subpar employee performance or other employee-related conduct issues. The disciplinary measures available to an employer can range from those with mild consequences to those with severe consequences, depending on the circumstances and the frequency in which the problems have occurred.

For example, coaching an employee in an informal manner could be viewed as an appropriate employer response for an employee who has been repeatedly tardy or has violated a relatively minor workplace rule. On the contrary, a more severe intervention or possibly termination could be appropriate if an employee has been involved in significant misconduct or continues to perform poorly despite having received several notices from their employer.

Most large corporations have implemented progressive discipline programs, but they may not specifically use that formal name to describe its program. Some companies will use performance improvement plan or corrective action program, but what is consistent amongst the programs is the principle that a company must tailor their discipline progress in proportionality to the severity of the employee’s conduct.

How Do You Communicate With an Employee During Disciplinary Action?

Employees that work alongside poor performing employees rely on employers to take progressive discipline concerns seriously and work with the employee to correct his/her behavior. If an employer does not take the process seriously or employees perceive such an attitude, the morale of the employees will be negatively impacted as a poor performing employee will continue to perform poorly without any employer action. In the end, disciplinary action is best handed out when an employer has actually witnessed the improper behavior.

Talking With the Employee Regarding Progressive Discipline

For a progressive discipline program to be successful, an employer must provide specific constructive feedback with examples and explanations surrounding inappropriate behavior or poor performance. If an employer were to sit down an employee to tell him/her that he/she has a poor attitude, such a comment does not provide the employee with the details or examples needed to improve. In this case, the employer should explain to the employee the expectations for change.

Most employers will detail their progressive discipline programs in some form of employee-related documentation (e.g., employee handbook). In most of these programs, if an employee has acted inappropriately, the employer will generally issue a verbal warning as a first step in the process. When issuing a formal verbal warning, the employer must determine if the offending employee is truly interested in changing his/her behavior. If the employer feels during this conversation that the employee is not willing to change his/her behavior, the employer would be in a position to terminate employment as the only rational step at that point in the process.

Progressive Discipline Policy Content

For employers with formally documented written progressive discipline policies and procedures, great care must be taken to ensure the progressive discipline will only be used in specific circumstances to remedy certain behavior or performance. Employers should have discretion in their progressive discipline process to proceed through the process in order of the documented steps or should feel free to use their discretion on skipping some of the steps in the process.

Guidelines of Progressive Discipline

Before availing themselves of the progressive discipline progress, an employer is best served conducting a comprehensive investigation of the facts and circumstances that led to the employee’s conduct. This would include giving the employee a chance to explain the situation and allowing the employee to make a formal response before any discipline is administered. In addition, the employer must make certain to document the progressive discipline process and the results of any employee investigation.

While working through the progress discipline process, an employer can repeat any step in the process if the employers feels as though repeating the step will result in a correction of the problem. If repeating the step in the process does not correct the problem, an employer is strongly encouraged to move to a higher step in the discipline process. No matter the steps used by employers, the goal of a progressive discipline process is to correct any unacceptable employee behavior with the hope that employee performance will improve. At no point in the process should the goal be to punish employees for their actions, but they should attempt to correct such behavior.

As an employer begins walking through the steps in the process, having a witness present during the meeting with the employee is an acceptable practice. However, the witness should not be a peer of the employee as that would be uncomfortable for the employee and not an ideal practice.

Essential Elements of Each Progressive Discipline Step

Employers are strongly encouraged to follow the steps in the progressive discipline progress completely as disciplinary actions are likely to be overturned or at least reduced to a lower level when any of the elements that are essential to the process are deemed to be missing. Some of these elements include the step in the process where the employer informs the employee of their unacceptable behavior or addresses their poor performance by providing specific examples where the employee’s work fell short of standards.

An employer should never assume that an employee already knows of the unacceptable behavior or that their performance is falling short. An employer should clearly articulate what is acceptable behavior and adequate performance. In addition, the employer should allow the employee a reasonable amount of time to comply with the employer’s request. A longer time period may be necessary if the employer expects the employee to address a skillset issue and maybe a shorter time frame if the employee is asked to address a behavioral concern. Lastly, the employee must have a clear understanding of the consequences if they do not address the employer’s issues. This is not issued as a threat to the employee, but will serve to provide them with expectations should change not result.

Typical Progressive Discipline Steps: Counseling

The first step in the typical progressive discipline process is counseling. In this step of the process, employers are encouraged to conduct the counseling session in an informal manner. That said, the discussion should be private and the employer should clearly articulate the purpose of the discussion, which is generally to identify a problem with the employee’s behavior or performance. Employers should ensure that they make available the necessary supporting documentation to support the discussion. Of course, this is a two-way conversation, so the employee should feel comfortable providing input about the fact and circumstances surrounding the behavior or performance.

If it is possible, the employer and employee should try to identify a solution to the issue in a collaborative fashion. If not possible, the employer should emphasize their desired solution. Make sure that the employee understands the employer’s expectations and that further disciplinary steps could be taken if the issue is not addressed. If the employer can elicit an employee commitment to resolve the issue, that would be ideal. The last step should be to schedule a follow-up with the employee where the employer provides feedback on how the employee has progressed to solve the problem.

Typical Progressive Discipline Steps: Written Warning

After the counseling session and allowing an employee time to correct any identified issues, an employer may consider preparing a written warning that is built upon information gathered from the investigations, the counseling session, employee response, and commitment. The written warning should address the employee’s history as it relates to the specific identified issue. The written warning should also include a statement about the present by describing the current situation as it relates to the issue as well as the employee’s explanation. There should also be a statement regarding the employer’s expectations for the future as well as detailed consequences should the behavior continue.

Typical Progressive Discipline Steps: Suspension

The next step in the process after the written warning is the suspension. The suspension length is not as important in the progressive discipline process as the mere fact of issuing a suspension. A brief suspension of one week or less will certainly emphasize the seriousness of the employee’s predicament. The Fair Labor Standard Act does indicate that any professionals in the workplace are required to be suspended in week-long increments. The formally written record of the suspension is traditionally prepared following the employer’s discussion with the employee. The record will detail the dates of the suspension, the reason for the suspension, and the necessary details so that there is no questions remaining for the employee.

Typical Progressive Discipline Steps: Termination

The last step in the progressive discipline process is termination. Termination is generally only used when the previous steps have not resulted in an employee’s corrective behavior. It should be noted that an employer must have a discussion with the employee prior to reaching a final determination. This requirement allows the employee a last opportunity to provide a detailed explanation and a last attempt to provide additional information. If the employee provides additional information, an employer must investigate when appropriate and give the information provided its due consideration.

The Advantages of Progressive Discipline

The progressive discipline process provides several advantages for the employer:

  1. Progressive discipline process may assist employees in getting back to performing well.
  2. Employers can now intervene and address employee behavior once the problem starts.
  3. Better employer/employee communication.
  4. Performance and productivity from their employees should increase.
  5. Employee morale may be improved as other employees understand that good behavior may be rewarded while poor behavior will have consequences.
  6. Provides a process for a fair and reasonable termination process for those employees unable to improve.
  7. Progressive discipline provides the employer with a formal structure that will allow them to avoid having to deal with the consequences of allowing bad behavior to persist.

Disadvantages of Progressive Discipline

A few of the disadvantages of the progressive discipline process are:

  1. Inflexible process can result; the employer must use its judgment on the steps from which to deviate in the process.
  2. Could be perceived as discriminatory, if certain steps are skipped in the process.
  3. The primary concern here is the potential for litigation if this occurs.
  4. Skipping steps could lead to an argument from the employee that an implied contract has been formed stating that an employee cannot be terminated unless all steps are followed.
  5. Time consuming exercise for smaller organizations.

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