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Progressive Discipline Process: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 04/07/2023

a manager using progressive discipline to address employee issues

Table of Contents

The issue of employee discipline can be a particularly tough part of the employment relationship. While it can be awkward and intimidating, proactively addressing issues via progressive discipline can positively impact profitability, employee morale, turnover, and potential litigation. That's why it's important to understand what an effective progressive discipline process looks like, learn how to tackle these issues head on to address incidents and prevent future problems, and outline some of the most important steps you can take to improve performance or behavior before termination emerges as a necessary next step. Ultimately, the progressive discipline process should involve creating and reinforcing a culture of respect, where the entire workforce is held accountable.

What Is Progressive Discipline?

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to coach and support employees, situations reach the point where unacceptable behaviors or poor performance necessitate disciplinary action. Progressive discipline refers to a process that employers commonly use to manage employee behavior, performance issues, and/or violations of company policy. It's called "progressive" because consequences generally continue to increase in severity as behaviors or performance don't meet expected and communicated standards. The purpose of progressive discipline is to change behavior by communicating to employees that an issue exists and discussing the opportunity to improve.

Examples of performance or behavior that may warrant progressive discipline include:

  • Not meeting job requirements
  • Missing deadlines
  • Poor work quality
  • Unexcused absences
  • Tardiness issues
  • Abuse of company property
  • Insubordination

Progressive discipline can be used to help document the steps being taken as well as reinforce the seriousness of the situation with the employee. Implementing a progressive discipline process gives businesses the direction they need to appropriately handle these unfortunate situations at each step, which commonly include: verbal warning, written warning, final written warning, and termination.

However, the severity of the employee's conduct may warrant bypassing one or more of the progressive discipline steps. HR departments should consider developing clear progressive discipline procedures and consult an employment attorney or knowledgeable HR partner in situations where termination is being considered.

What Are Progressive Discipline Procedures?

An employee progressive discipline procedure is a formally documented process among managers that can be used to address and improve an employee's unacceptable performance or behaviors. It may reference examples of what constitutes unacceptable workplace performance or behavior, identify ways that discipline will escalate if an issue continues, and define documentation requirements.

Why Is a Progressive Discipline Process Important?

A progressive discipline process is all about improving behavior or performance — leading to increased productivity, improved worker morale, and more engagement at work. Additionally, progressive discipline is important because it can help:

Employer Benefits of a Progressive Discipline Process

A business stands to benefit in multiple ways by adopting a progressive discipline process. Taking these proactive measures can help you:

  • Promote a culture of open communication between supervisors and employees and create opportunities for coaching and mentoring.
  • Potentially increase retention by resolving issues and correcting behavior early on.
  • Provide important documentation should termination of employment become necessary.
  • Help managers achieve higher performance and productivity from their teams.
  • Demonstrate to employees that good performance will be recognized and poor performance may face consequences.
  • Handle issues consistently and fairly for all employees.
  • Conduct a fair, documented, and more defensible termination for employees who don't improve.

What Are the Steps for a Progressive Discipline Process?

The main component of a progressive discipline process is the steps taken to properly address employee issues. These steps range from an initial conversation all the way to termination, giving employers the means to both work with employees and document efforts at each step to correct performance or behaviors.

Verbal Warning

A verbal warning makes the employee aware of a particular issue and presents the employee with the opportunity to take steps to remedy it. While the warning is verbal, it's still important to document the event to establish that it occurred and confirm expectations with the employee. A few key details should be collected and recorded at this time:

  • The date and time the verbal warning was given.
  • The reason for the conversation and what the employee needs to do to improve.
  • Next steps discussed during the meeting.
  • Who was present in the meeting.

Written Warning

If the verbal warning doesn't result in improved performance or change in behavior, a formal written warning is often the next step. An employer may choose to issue more than one written warning for some infractions. A written notice usually includes:

  • Details on the policy or performance expectations in question.
  • How the individual violated a company rule or did not meet performance expectations.
  • An action plan or next steps that must be taken to avoid further consequences.
  • The subsequent disciplinary action to be taken if there are no improvements.
  • The date you presented the written warning.
  • Signatures of all parties present.

During the meeting where the written notice is issued, the employee should have the opportunity to provide their feedback on the written document. It may also be important to make the employee aware that signing the warning document does not necessarily establish agreement but serves as a record that the discussion took place, and the employee is aware that they are accountable for taking corrective action. Once the employer and employee sign the written warning, it should go into the employee's personnel file.

Final Warning

The final warning is the employee's last opportunity to improve performance or behavior. It's at this step that the employer communicates that if improvements don't happen, termination of employment will be the next and final step. This step may also include suspension with or without pay.

Documentation should be presented and signed, which restates the policy or performance expectation in question, explicitly outlines the issue, what must be done to correct behavior or improve performance and indicates that this is a final warning. This document should be added to the same file as any previous warnings.

Termination of Employment

While a last resort, there are times when termination may be necessary. Documentation is important every step of the way, but especially during the termination process.

To help make the termination as painless as possible:

  • Make sure your decision is based on objective factors.
  • Have a witness present.
  • Review the progressive discipline process with the employee, referencing previous documentation.
  • Be prepared for the employee's reaction.
  • Present the employee with a written, dated termination notice, everyone should sign it, and then you should save the original for personal filing purposes.
  • Prepare the employee's final paycheck and address termination of benefits.
  • Review any state or local rules and regulations covering termination of employment.
  • Collect any company property from the employee, including key fobs, laptops, and other equipment.
  • Maintain confidentiality at all times.

Design a Progressive Discipline Process With Help From a Human Resource Professional

While you bring employees on board with the hope they will all be top performers who follow all the rules, there are instances where you may need to address behavior and performance issues. Considering the time and resources it takes to develop and execute a progressive discipline process, along with navigating potential pitfalls, you may want an expert to guide your business. They can help you mitigate risk, develop sound company policies, and manage each step of the employee lifecycle with confidence.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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