Is Progressive Discipline Really Important?

Discipline is always a topic of contention in most organizations. How really should a supervisor react when an employee violates company policy? Are there specific guidelines and measures in place to address the unacceptable behavior? Is the supervisor and organization consistent in the distribution of disciplinary actions? Is it progressive? Is it fair? Does it need to be progressive?

Understanding the basic foundation, steps and terms of progressive discipline is only the tip of the spear. For review, a typical progressive policy is one that has a clear progression of disciplinary actions that will be taken when an employee violates the work rules. For example, a typical progressive disciplinary policy might include steps like this:

  • Verbal warning. A verbal warning is one that is more informal. It serves to ensure that the employee is aware of the infraction and is given the opportunity to take steps to remedy it. (The warning is verbal, but you should document it.)
  • Written warning (one or more). A written warning is a more formal warning to the employee. It is issued if the verbal warning does not result in a positive change in the employee’s behavior. It usually includes an action plan or next steps that must be taken in order to ensure that there are no further consequences. An employer may choose to have more than one written warning for some infractions. Usually, the employer and employee sign the written warning and it goes into the employee’s personnel file.
  • Suspension (with or without pay). Suspension is generally reserved for major infractions or for situations that require investigation before further action is taken. It can serve as a final warning to the employee that if behavior is not improved, termination will result next.
  • Termination. Termination is usually a last resort, but sometimes it cannot be avoided. Documentation is important every step of the way, but especially for any termination decision.

It is important to note that some policy infractions may warrant skipping the early steps altogether. Having a progressive disciplinary system in place does not mean

that an employer cannot move immediately to termination for serious violations such as violence, harassment, theft, or major safety violations. This should be explained in the policy itself.

With any workplace policy, there are pros and cons, and progressive discipline is no exception. Listed below are some of the biggest advantages and disadvantages to such a policy.

A few of the Pros:

  • It provides a clear explanation of the consequences of not following the employer’s rules or not meeting expectations.
  • It provides the opportunity for consistency and fairness in disciplinary procedures for different employees.
  • It gives the opportunity for an employee to change behaviors. This is especially true in cases where the employee may not have realized they were breaking the rules or causing a problem.
  • It gives the employer the chance to explain to the employee what actions can be taken to improve the situation; this is a chance for coaching and mentoring.
  • It provides the employer with alternatives to termination for minor infractions.

This improves employee retention.It provides evidence that the employer gave the employee every opportunity to improve.

A few of the Cons:

  • Such a policy can seem inflexible; HR and managers have to make judgment calls when to deviate from the progressive steps (as may be necessary when considering all circumstances).
  • If not followed consistently for all employees, this could appear to be discriminatory. (Note: This problem exists any time different disciplinary actions are taken for different employees who have committed the same violation; it is not unique to employers using progressive discipline.) The primary concern here is the potential for litigation if this occurs.
  • Some fear that such a policy implies that the steps must be followed before any termination, which could have the effect of an implied contract stating that an employee will never be terminated without these steps. The fear is that this might jeopardize the “at-will” status of the employment.
  • It can be time-consuming to use in practice, especially for organizations with limited resources. Not only does the process itself take time but it also requires training in advance, documentation during each incidence, and follow-up.

For some businesses, especially small organizations, it may not be practical to follow these steps as it may not be practical to keep an employee on staff who violates any rule. Or, it may not be feasible to keep the business running with a suspended employee. It just might not be practical to implement for every organization.

Do the pros outweigh the cons in your organization? Every employer must decide. Some have chosen to take steps to mitigate the risks presented in each of these “cons.” For example, they might include a disclaimer in the policy noting that steps may be skipped at the employer’s discretion and that the policy does not affect the at-will nature of employment. Other employers opt to use a progressive disciplinary policy, but choose not to¬†advertise this to the employees, instead using it as an internal guideline.

Policy violations and disrespectful workplace behaviors-harassment, discrimination, prejudice, and bullying-cannot be allowed to exist in an organization without being properly addressed by a fair, timely and progressive discipline policy. If an organization fails to produce good order among its employees it will risk creating an environment of poor employee morale and low engagement. Secondarily, lack of consistent discipline could result in increased turnover and may contribute to a hostile workplace environment resulting in legal action.

For your organization to thrive, you need to create a culture of RESPECT-truly lived by all and where people are held accountable when they act disrespectfully. Properly train your supervisors and managers to recognize, document and deliver discipline when needed. Conversely, employees need to understand what behaviors are and are not acceptable in the work environment and the results of compliance and noncompliance.

If you need any assistance in reviewing your organization’s discipline policy or training of supervisory staff in progressive discipline, please let us know; we would be glad to help.

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