How To Implement Progressive Discipline in the Workplace

Progressive discipline is a process that employers use to attempt to correct behaviors of employees for various violations of policies, values and codes of conduct. Another reason for an employer’s use of progressive discipline is for risk management. This allows and supports an organization’s position and decision to suspend, and possibly terminate an employee, by providing a complete and concise record of poor performance and attempts at remediation of unacceptable behaviors. According to attorney and contributor Lisa Guerin, JD, the legal definition of progressive discipline is “an employee disciplinary system that provides a graduated range of responses to employee performance or conduct problems. Disciplinary measures range from mild to severe, depending on the nature and frequency of the problem.”1

It has been used for several years in the workplace. Recently, many scholarly articles have begun to realize that progressive discipline is in fact an outdated and antiquated process that does not effectively improve employee performance or behaviors. Instead, it creates angry, hostile, underproductive and disengaged employees.

Progressive discipline is the process of using increasingly severe steps or measures when an employee fails to correct a problem after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so.

Progressive Discipline

Why is progressive discipline important?

Progressive discipline is important for several reasons, including that it:

Allows managers to recognize and address problematic employee behavior before it escalates

What is progressive discipline?

Progressive discipline is an approach that uses a graduated system of discipline to address behavioral and performance issues. The purpose of progressive discipline is to provide employees with a reasonable opportunity to correct and improve issues, while also providing fair notice of the consequences of not correcting those issues.

The exact disciplinary measures taken depend on the severity and frequency of the underlying issues and the company’s specific rules and procedures. While the procedure is defined as a sequence of steps, each manager can reserve the right to take appropriate action on a case-by-case basis.

What is a progressive discipline policy?

A progressive discipline policy is an approach that informs employees of the actions managers can take when improvement or change is required. The policy should clearly show employees the steps they can anticipate going through, if they display unsatisfactory performance. Employers typically include this policy in the employee handbook to ensure all employees have access to it.

The 3 steps of progressive discipline

While each organization uses different steps when practicing progressive discipline, the following are the most common steps:

1. Verbal warning

A verbal warning occurs when a manager or supervisor notifies the employee of the need for improvement. The manager may schedule a one-on-one meeting with the team member to discuss the issue of concern and how the employee can improve their performance. The manager should ensure the employee fully understands the issue discussed, expectations for how to correct the issue, and the manager should maintain written documentation of the issue and the conversation for future reference.

2. Written warning

A written warning is when a manager gives the employee a notice in writing that their performance has not improved after a verbal warning. The written notice includes all pertinent details related to the issue as well as previous attempts to inform the employee of the need for change. Employers may want to issue a second written warning before moving to a final course of action.

A performance improvement plan (PIP) is a formal written plan that details a deadline for the employee to address the issue and improve their performance. For example, a PIP may state that an employee has 60 days to meet performance expectations or the employee will be terminated. The PIP should include specific details as to what improvements need to be made and how the employee can make them. Additionally, it should include any training that is needed and a schedule of follow-up meetings to monitor progress.

3. Final course of action

The final course of action takes place after all the above steps have been completed and the issue has not been addressed or substantially improved. There are several options a company may take for the final course of action and they include:

How to implement progressive discipline in the workplace

The following are steps you can take to implement a progressive discipline approach at work:

1. Clearly define the steps

Ensure employees have a clear understanding of the steps you plan to take in the instance that disciplinary action is required.

2. When issues arise, first investigate

When an issue arises with an employee, ensure you fully understand the situation and its cause before taking disciplinary action. This may require you to interview other team members, though it’s important to do this without revealing your intentions for the sake of employee confidentiality. You may also want to monitor the employee’s performance for days or weeks to gather the data you need to support disciplinary action.

3. Document all progressive disciplinary actions

When you do choose to discipline an employee, keep written documentation of each step of the progressive discipline approach. Include all relevant information in your documentation, including what the issue is, the dates the behavior occurred, when you issued warnings to the employee and the impact of the issue on productivity.

4. Use the same disciplinary actions in all similar situations

Its important to remain fair and consistent in the disciplinary actions you take. If two employees are exhibiting the same unwanted behaviors, use the same approach for both of them.

5. Regularly check the employees improvement

Keep track of the employees improvement after issuing warnings or other disciplinary actions. If they dont make satisfactory improvement, move on to the next step in your progressive discipline plan.

Tips for communicating discipline to team members

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when communicating your progressive discipline plan to team members:

Document conversations

Maintain detailed records of all disciplinary actions taken, and keep human resources up-to-date on the status of the employees response to the actions.

Begin the process promptly

Promptly implement a progressive disciplinary action after becoming aware of an issue. Schedule a meeting with the employee to discuss the issue and review any documentation that is being issued as a result of the offense. During the discussion, ask the employee what they need from you to be successful.

Follow-up by email

Summarize your conversation with the employee in an email so that the conversation is time-stamped and documented and to confirm your mutual understanding of the situation.

Invite an HR rep to mediate

Consider having a third-party witness, such as a human resources representative, attend the meeting if you feel such a step would help foster open communication between you and the employee. This will allow the meeting to be unbiased and conflict resolution can be applied if needed.

Confirm the employee understands the situation

Thoroughly explain the issue, how it affects the workplace and why it needs to change to the employee so theyre motivated to improve.

Specify the impact

Explain how long the disciplinary action will be active in the employees file and how this action would impact internal transfer opportunities, merit increases and promotions.


What are the three levels of progressive discipline?

The 4-Step Progressive Discipline Template
  1. Step 1: Verbal Warning. In this step, the supervisor informs the employee of the concerns and listens to any information the employee provides. …
  2. Step 2: Written Warning. …
  3. Step 3: Suspension. …
  4. Step 4: Termination.

What are the five steps in progressive discipline?

Steps of Progressive Discipline
  • Step 1: Verbal Counseling(s) A verbal counseling is generally the first step of progressive discipline. …
  • Step 2: Written Warning(s) A written warning is generally the second step of progressive discipline. …
  • Step 3: Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) …
  • Step 4: Termination of Employment.

What are the principles of progressive discipline?

There are five steps that can be taken in the progressive discipline process:
  1. Coaching Note (AKA Verbal Warning)
  2. Written Warning.
  3. Final Warning.
  4. Decision Day/Suspension.
  5. Separation.

Why progressive discipline is important?

Employer checklist for progressive discipline

Communicate clearly job expectations to all employees. Bring unacceptable work to the attention of the employee promptly. Provide reasonable supervision, training and instruction. Give reasonable warning that failure to meet these expectations could result in dismissal.

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