Progressive Discipline: How does it work?

When you are in a leadership or management role, chances are you are supervising employees. Typically if you are in this type of role, part of your scope is the performance management of these employees.  In recent years, the term “performance management” has replaced “Human Resources/HR.”  SHRM states “performance management systems typically include the following three broad elements: goal setting, performance review and a performance improvement process.”  When discussing progressive discipline, this would fall under the performance improvement process category.

Now, every manager hopes that they will have a team where everything runs smoothly, people meet their goals as they have been mutually determined, abide by all the company policy and procedures, and are a team player.  Notice I said every manager “hopes.”  The reality is, when working with direct reports, performance management is a critical part of the successful outcome of that team.  Sometimes, issues do arise where action needs to be taken, and this is where the process of progressive discipline is crucial.

If your organization already has a progressive discipline policy in place, great!  Be sure to reference that policy and meet with your Human Resource professional if you have any questions.  As a manager, you need to feel comfortable with this process, because having a performance improvement discussion with an employee can be hard.  If you do not have a policy in place, here are some things to keep in mind when looking to develop a progressive discipline policy.

Note: There are certain things that are not subject to progressive discipline.  Examples of these would be illegal behavior, acts of violence in the workplace, theft, substance or alcohol abuse, or other criminal activity.  These types of infractions could lead to immediate termination and reporting to local/state/federal law enforcement agencies or licensing boards.

Verbal Warnings:

When an instance occurs, the employee’s immediate supervisor must address it with them.  In this step, the supervisor will meet with the employee, review the nature of the instance (if it is a violation of a company policy, it is always a best practice to have a copy of the policy on hand to reference), discuss the circumstances of the instance, and then clearly explain the expectations going forward. 

While this may be considered a “verbal warning” it is still documented.  Prior to the meeting, you want to have the document filled out with all relevant information.  Then at the end of the meeting, you will ask the employee to sign stating that they understand this is a verbal warning and the expected outcome of the discussion.

***We typically recommend at least two people attend the meeting with the employee: the immediate supervisor and the organizational HR representative.  This will reduce the chance for miscommunications, and all parties sign the form.  If the employee refuses to sign, both the supervisor and HR rep will sign and make a note “employee refused to sign.”

Written Warnings:

This step is more formal than a verbal warning, but involves a lot of the same steps.  When an issue arises, the immediate supervisor will address the concern with them.  In addition, any prior performance management actions will be referenced and discussed.  The difference here is that it will formally documented as a performance management issue along with expected outcomes and consequences of further infractions.  It should also be stated how a performance improvement plan could result if immediate improvement is not achieved. 

Finally, a formal written warning should include a statement “employee may be subject to further disciplinary action which may lead up to and include termination.”

Again, having two people attend the meeting to eliminate any miscommunication, and the employee will be required to sign the document, along with the two managers.  This will go into their employee file, and a copy will be given to them.

If additional infractions occur, there may be an opportunity for a second written warning prior to being placed on a performance improvement plan, depending on the severity of the infraction. 

Copies of the written warning and PIP are given to the employee with originals kept in their employment file.

Performance Improvement Plan:

This step is reserved for when an infraction occurs and there has been at least one verbal, and one written warning issued.  The Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) will outline the following criteria:

  • Action or Violation
  • Area of Improvement
  • How the Improvement is to be Achieved (what steps the employee will take)
  • Steps Supervisor will Take to Assist
  • What the Final Result will be
  • Time Frame

With a PIP, they are typically for a 30 day timeframe. In this time period, it is recommended that the supervisor meet with the employee weekly to discuss their progress on the plan and this is documented as well as a weekly update.  If at the end of the pre-determined time period, significant improvement has been achieved, the PIP will be considered closed. If the problem arises again at a later date, you have documented every attempt given to the employee to correct their behavior, and can move on towards recommendation of termination.  On the other hand, if significant improvement has not been achieved at the end of the pre-determined date, recommendation for termination can be made.

Suspension and/or Termination:

In the event an infraction occurs that warrants an investigation period, you can temporarily suspend the employee while you complete the investigation.  There are many suspension options that can be applied, be sure to reference the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for compliance.  If at the end of the investigation, the infraction is to be founded; all information should be documented in regards to the investigation, along with a formal recommendation for termination.  The employee would be called back to meet with the immediate supervisory and either the HR representative or CEO (depending on the size of the organization.) 

***Typically, when a recommendation for suspension or termination of an employee, the CEO or highest designated HR representative of the organization must give written approval. 

Finally, when all options have been exhausted (written warnings, PIP, investigations), and the recommendation for termination has been approved – a final performance improvement document will be prepared with all relevant data (offense, all prior warnings, PIP’s, investigation summary, etc.) and the action of termination.  The employee will be brought in and will be presented with the information at hand with a result of termination of employment.  Again, the employee will be asked to sign the form, a copy will be given to them and the original placed in their employee file.

Progressive discipline is not always easy.  It can take an emotional toll on the supervisory as well as the employee.  The overall goal of progressive discipline is to provide a uniform process which is applied equally to all employees with the goal of addressing and preventing further violations of organizational standards. 

Feel like you need someone to help you out with developing a progressive discipline or performance management policy for your organization? Contact Harpeth Consultant Advisory Group to discuss your needs and how we can help.