It's a jungle out there: Setting up an effective progressive discipline plan

difficult conversations

In an ideal – if boring – world, employees would show up for work on time every day, exceed standards in their day-to-day duties, get along perfectly with their bosses and co-workers, and follow every company rule.
Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world. And that’s where the concept of progressive discipline comes in.  
On the surface, the concept of progressive discipline is simple: It’s a structured approach to dealing with workforce problems ranging from poor performance to unacceptable behavior.
Most workplaces in the U.S. fall under the “at-will” employment doctrine. Technically, that means either party – employer or employee – can end the relationship at any time, for any reason.
Sounds great. Unfortunately, in today’s litigious atmosphere, savvy companies know that simply handing a worker his or her walking papers without an explanation – or documentation of the reasons for the firing termination decision – is an invitation for a lawsuit.
So progressive discipline has three basic goals:

  • to bring employee performance or behavior into compliance with company standards and expectations
  • to encourage other employees to succeed – under the standards of ethics and behavior the company has established, and
  • create a comprehensive paper trail to outline the good-faith process the company went through to handle the problem, in case termination is the final outcome.

A typical progressive discipline structure looks something like this:

  • Step One: counseling. This is where the manager first brings the problem to the employee’s attention. It’s also where the supervisor can learn if there are unknown factors contributing to the problem. Ideally, the employee gets the message, the situation improves and the process ends.
  • Step Two: verbal reprimand. The initial counseling session didn’t have the desired effect, and the manager is forced to revisit the topic. A memo noting the conversation is placed in the employee’s file.
  • Step Three: written warning. This formalizes the manager’s concern about the employee’s performance or behavior, and outlines the potential consequences that could follow if the situation doesn’t change.
  • Step Four: Final warning. After a specified period of time, if the problem’s not satisfactorily addressed, the company and employee part ways.

Obviously, this structure’s flexible. For instance, an employer could repeat Step Three several times if it’s determined to be in the company’s best long-term interest.

Two sides of the coin

Like every tactic designed to deal with the spectrum of human behavior, there are advantages and disadvantages to adopting a progressive discipline policy.

The advantages

Thorough, clear documentation of how the company responded to specific workforce problems isn’t the only advantage of having a progressive discipline policy.
Handled correctly, such policies also:

  • give managers an established, structured method of correcting employees’ performance and behavior problems
  • help managers spark higher employee performance and productivity
  • demonstrate, when coupled with rewards for good behavior and performance, the company’s commitment to treating employees fairly, and
  • cut down on turnover costs by “rescuing” problem employees who might otherwise have to be terminated.

The disadvantages

Like every employment policy, progressive discipline has its pitfalls. Here’s a rundown:

  • management needs to write a formal policy and include it in all company documentation for employees, like employee handbooks
  • all managers have to be fully trained in the policy
  • administering the plan adds new managerial burdens of documentation and follow-up, and
  • the process can alter – or at least suspend – the at-will status of the employee involved until all the steps have run their course.

Building in flexibility

It’s that last point – that a formal policy can tie the hands of the employer – that makes some companies wary of formal progressive discipline protocols.
But employers can steer clear of that pitfall by building flexibility into their policies. Here’s how:

  • Include a statement reinforcing the concept that all employees work at the company in an “at-will” relationship
  • Stress that the level of discipline is up to the discretion of management, and that not every case will warrant exhausting all possible steps. It’s also a good idea to provide examples of offenses that warrant immediate termination: drug use, stealing, workplace violence, etc.
  • Explain that discipline decisions are based on an employee’s entire record. Example: An employee who’s been reprimanded in the past for attendance issues might not be afforded the opportunity of an extended program to improve substandard performance, and
  • Stress that flexibility runs both ways – the employer, rather than terminating an employee, can opt to extend the process if the situation warrants.

Lay the groundwork

Most employees want not just to follow company policy, but to succeed overall. So the first step in creating a progressive discipline system is to let employees know what’s expected of them.
And those expectations need to be spelled out in black and white – in employee handbooks, job descriptions and performance reviews.
Smart employers also make sure expectations are:

  • established with employee input
  • written in easily understandable language, and
  • distributed to all employees and reviewed in staff meetings or other employee gatherings.