Don’t Let Progressive Discipline Bind You

Most employers use only three choices when it comes to dealing with problem employees: oral warning, written warning (as in, “I’m writing you up!”) and firing.

But there’s a better approach.  Arm yourself and all managers and supervisors with a progressive discipline procedure – including seven choices.

The Progressive Discipline Approach Consists of: FINAL WARNING!

  1. An oral warning.
  2. A written warning.
  3. A performance agreement. This is a written agreement (similar to a written warning, but with a statement that the employee agrees to change, a time-certain for the change, the consequences if the change does not occur by teh time certain), signed by the employee.
  4. A last-chance agreement. This is a written agreement (similar to the performance agreement) used when the employee’s misconduct or behavior is too severe for an oral warning, a written warning, or a performance agreement.  This agreement includes the elements of the performance agreement. And in addition, it includes a statement that (a) this is the last chance the employee has to correct behavior or performance, and (b) if the employee’s behavior or performance does not satisfactorily improve in the time frame stated, his or her employment is immediately terminated.
  5. A suspension with pay.
  6. A suspension without pay.
  7. Termination.

“Progressive discipline” gives an employee the chance to improve job performance before reaching the point of a termination. Typically, progressive discipline involves oral and written warnings, suspension and finally, dismissal.

Such a policy often prompts employees to feel they have a right to advance through each stage of progressive discipline before dismissal occurs. This expectation conflicts with your need — on those rare occasions — when you want to immediately fire an employee.

So Here’s How to Set Up a Policy

  • State in your written policy that your progressive discipline policy will be implemented solely at the discretion of management.
  • Don’t make promises such as “XYZ Company will never dismiss an employee without first applying progressive discipline.”
  • Include a disclaimer stating that your progressive discipline policy is not meant to create contractual employment rights.
  • If you list in your policy examples of misconduct, explain that the list is not a complete inventory of offenses for which employees can be disciplined.

Example: “This list describes various offenses which merit progressive discipline.  It is not all-inclusive. XYZ Company reserves the right to discipline and/or terminate employees for any offense — including those not detailed in this list — which interferes with work performance or endangers the safety or health of the employee, the public or a coworker.”

Tips for Written Warnings

The “performance memos” or “written warnings” you hand employees not only educate them about their work problems, but if a lawsuit should ever arise, it’s part of your record of their performance.  Include these features:

  • Describe deficiencies. Include specific instances of unsatisfactory performance.  Example: Dates and times of arrival for each instance of tardiness.
  • Refer to work standards listed in a company policy or a job description. Example: A tardiness and absenteeism policy.
  • Identify a time frame for improvement and a standard to which the employee will be held. Example: “During the next six months, XYZ Company will regard as unacceptable any unauthorized tardiness on your part.”
  • Suggest actions for improving performance. You could, for instance, suggest the employee set his or her alarm clock for 15 minutes earlier.
  • Identify future disciplinary actions. A broad, general statement like the following informs an employee of future consequences… but it doesn’t restrict your options for discipline. “Unless this problem is corrected, you face future disciplinary action up to and including discharge.”
  • Offer support. Remember, the intent of a written warning is not to make yourself out as an ogre. If appropriate, remind the employee of how much you value his or her service. Express your eagerness to work with the employee to remedy a problem.


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