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Using Progressive Discipline to Improve Employee Performance

Human Resources

Progressive discipline generally involves a series of steps designed to alter an employee's behavior or improve performance, through specific feedback or additional training. In this interview, Dorene Crimi Lerner, MBA, SPHR, human resources consultant with Paychex HR Solutions, outlines best practices for the use of progressive discipline in the workplace.

Q: What steps are involved in the process of progressive discipline?

Dorene Crimi Lerner: In general, these steps can include:

  • Verbal warning
  • Written warning
  • Suspension
  • Final written warning
  • Termination

Q: When should progressive discipline take place?

DCL: Progressive discipline best practices dictate that employers should take action as soon as they become aware of a behavior or performance issue or when company policies have been violated. The employer and/or manager must consider the effect of the employee's behavior on other employees, customers, etc., as well how often the undesirable behavior is taking place. Whatever the circumstances, it's generally important to address a behavior or performance issue without delay to try to minimize disruption to the workplace and get the employee back on track.

Q: What are examples of and differences between behavior issues and performance issues?

DCL: Chronic lateness and absenteeism can both be examples of behavior issues that progressive discipline can address. While often these are problems an employee is able to correct on his/her own with minimal guidance from the supervisor, employers are encouraged to consult with legal counsel or their HR professional to discuss potential Americans With Disabilities Act or similar state-law implications in these situations.

Performance issues such as missing deadlines or the inability to achieve stated goals may require more in-depth examination and assistance. Employers may consider: Has the employee been properly trained on their responsibilities? Does (s)he fully understand their job duties? Is (s)he encountering some obstacle that negatively impacts his/her performance?

Q: Why is it important to create a paper trail during the progressive discipline process?

DCL: Throughout the progressive discipline process, it can be helpful to document all developments. First, this can help both the manager and employee agree on what the problem is and the actions needed to correct it. In the long run, should an employer decide to terminate an employee, this documentation helps to show the employee received an opportunity to improve his/her behavior or improve their performance, but that ultimately the goals weren't met. The paper trail may also offer some protection in the event the employee files a claim of discrimination or wrongful termination.

Q: How does the manager proceed with a progressive discipline meeting and/or a written warning?

DCL: It is considered a best practice for a manager to come prepared to a progressive discipline meeting with specific examples of the problem behavior or performance shortcoming. It's up to the manager to set the tone for the meeting and to avoid allowing the situation to escalate. This means remaining calm through the discussion, with the focus on explaining why and how the employee's behavior or performance must improve, with a clear plan of action to correct problems or issues.

If a written warning is involved, the employee is asked to sign the warning form, acknowledging that the meeting has occurred and an action plan has been determined. Consider including the following in your written warning:

  • Description of the policy violation or behavior issue and when it occurred
  • Explanation of expected changes
  • A plan and timeframe for improvement
  • Any comments the employee wishes to include for the record
  • A statement noting that if the deficiency persists, further disciplinary action may take place up to and including termination

Hopefully, the employee can come away from the meeting with a clear understanding of what (s)he needs to do and knowing that his manager is interested in assisting him in his improvement.

Q: If these warnings fail to work, what happens next?

DCL: If the problem persists, the manager can consider a suspension or even issue a final written warning that includes notification to the employee that failure to correct behavior immediately or meet the stated level of performance in a given time period will result in termination of employment. Employers are encouraged to consult with legal counsel or their HR professional prior to issuing final written warnings or terminating employment to discuss potential exposure to litigation.

Q: Should a description of this process be included in the employee handbook?

DCL: Best practice dictates that a detailed progressive discipline policy should not be included in the employee handbook but alternatively communicated to supervisors and managers. Additional training for supervisors and managers may also be beneficial.

Q: How do employees know what performance and behavior is expected of them in the workplace?

DCL: Only by clearly setting out policies can employees understand what is expected from them. That's why it's also a good idea to communicate your policies in an employee handbook and have employees review the handbook and acknowledge in writing that they understand what they've read. A comprehensively designed handbook will generally also include a standards of conduct policy, with a non-inclusive list of examples of behaviors or infractions that may result in disciplinary action.

Resources for Employers and Managers

Paychex HR Solutions offers the seminar "Effective Employee Discipline and Termination (Managers and Supervisors)," which covers progressive discipline, disciplinary procedures, documentation, related legal issues, termination meetings, and exit interviews. Paychex HR Solutions can also help you develop an employee handbook from our database of legally reviewed policies to help ensure that employees understand company policies and the consequences involved in failing to meet those expectations.


This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.