Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vivamus convallis sem tellus, vitae egestas felis vestibule ut.

Error message details.

Reuse Permissions

Request permission to republish or redistribute SHRM content and materials.

7 Tips for Effective Employee Disciplinary Meetings

Whether the meeting is for poor performance or conduct, how you handle it can make the difference between success and failure for employees.

It’s one of the unfortunate realities of being a manager: At some point, you’re going to have to discipline an employee. But if undertaken carefully and fairly and with the support of your HR department, such confrontations need not be distressing. Keep in mind that, as a manager, you are positioned to play a positive and critical role in helping your workers improve their performance, modify their behavior and ultimately succeed. “The whole process of disciplining is to save someone,” says Angela Shaw, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president of talent at Amplify Credit Union in Austin, Texas.

Still, disciplining someone for their poor performance or conduct is never pleasant. Undertaken poorly, such interactions can lead to awkward and testy confrontations that, if botched, can heighten your organization’s legal risks or unfairly damage an employee’s career prospects. But by following these expert tips, you can help minimize that fallout.

Own Your Employees’ Performance Issues

Your first responsibility in handling problematic employee issues is to distinguish between what you should handle personally and what should rest with your HR department. Most organizations empower managers to handle their employees’ performance-related issues, such as unsatisfactory work.

As a manager, you are the most familiar with the quality of your employees’ work, which makes you best suited to address such situations. “HR does not do the manager’s unpleasant tasks,” says Don Herrmann, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at We Care Senior Care, Inc. in Green Bay, Wisc. “Managers get to do and should do both the good and not-so-good activities.”

Ideally, you’ve received some type of training from HR on how to handle performance-related issues. But even if you didn’t, your organization probably has an employee handbook that spells out performance expectations and steps to take—such as performance improvement plans—when those expectations are not met.

“My spin is that HR should not conduct such meetings,” says Christine Walters, SHRM-SCP, an employment attorney who heads the FiveL Company, an HR consultancy in Westminster, Maryland. A manager may ask an HR representative to sit in on an employee performance meeting as a witness, but it should be the employee’s manager—not HR—who takes ownership of performance-related issues and follows through on any subsequent consequences, Walters says. “If HR were to conduct the meeting, employees would have nowhere to turn if they think the process is unfair.”

Know When to Escalate

It’s a different story, however, when it comes to disciplining an employee for conduct-related issues, says Jocelyn King, SHRM-SCP, chief executive officer of VirgilHR, an HR compliance software company in Washington, D.C. Allegations of employee misconduct such as sexual harassment or theft should be left to HR professionals who are trained to conduct appropriate investigations and remain impartial. Involving HR to determine a course of action once a serious allegation is made not only helps ensure the objectivity of the disciplinary process, it’s also the best way to protect your organization against allegations of race, sex or age discrimination; anti-union sentiment; or any other management impropriety. “I don’t keep managers involved in investigations because I want the investigations to be as neutral as possible,” King says.

Be Fair

Giving employees who are facing any type of performance- or conduct-related discipline the chance to defend themselves is an important step toward ensuring the fairness of employee meetings and potential further action. Keep in mind that there are two sides to every story, Shaw says. Give an accused employee the opportunity to tell their side and the chance to write a rebuttal. Doing so “can provide information that HR was not aware of,” she advises.

Be Sensitive to Extenuating Circumstances

If, after addressing an employee’s problematic behavior, they tell you their conduct or performance issue is a consequence of a medical condition, you should refer that employee to HR. Depending on what the medical condition is, it could trigger employee protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, or any number of state and local laws that require accommodation or time off for illness, Walters says. Refusing to accommodate a covered worker may expose your organization to a costly lawsuit.

In such cases, HR should take the lead and have a private meeting with the employee. Once they have a better idea of what is at the heart of the issue, HR should bring you back into the conversation to discuss potential accommodations and a reasonable plan of action that can enable your employee to succeed.

Proceed Gradually and Deliberately

There’s been a significant shift in thinking about workplace discipline over the past few decades. Today, many employers think twice before coming down hard on an employee or firing them on the spot for poor performance or for inappropriate conduct involving a first (nonviolent) offense. Instead, it’s common for employers to embrace “progressive” discipline and only turn to formal written warnings or punitive steps (such as a suspension or demotion) if lesser actions aren’t effective.

For example, King recommends that managers give workers two to three informal verbal warnings before issuing a written warning, which is “much more serious,” she says. “It’s important to give people the opportunity to adjust their behavior or performance before moving forward with a more formal process that will leave employees feeling quite uncomfortable.” However, HR experts advise that managers do keep their own written record of any performance- or conduct-related discussion they have with an employee.

While some organizations require employees to sign a document acknowledging that a counseling session has taken place, not everyone agrees that’s necessary or even advisable.

Requiring an employee to sign a document after they’ve been warned “is very old school,” according to Shaw. “You can ask an employee to sign something, but I wouldn’t want to make their refusal a firing offense,” she advises.

Know Your Legal Requirements

You should help your organization avoid potential legal problems by ensuring that any disciplinary actions are applied consistently and that legally protected groups are not unfairly or disproportionately targeted, legal experts say. In all cases, any proposed discipline should be proportionate to the severity of the alleged infraction.

When a company’s workers are unionized, managers—with the support of HR—should always follow contractual or other legal protections, including those that allow a worker who is being counseled or investigated to have a union representative present during relevant meetings, says David Pryzbylski, an employment attorney with Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Indianapolis.

Close the Meeting on a Positive Note

The most important goal of a performance meeting is to deliver the message that things need to change. Walters advises closing such meetings by asking the employee open-ended questions to confirm that they understand what you expect of them. Rather than ask your employee “yes” or “no” questions—such as whether they understand their performance improvement plan, or if they have any questions—Walters suggests asking them to explain what they understand your expectations of them to be.

If possible, end the meeting on a positive note. Thank the employee for their time and insights into the situation, but be clear that there will be follow-up, advises Shaw. Be sure to schedule a time for your next meeting. End by assuring the worker that you sincerely believe in second chances. Shaw recommends using a closing statement such as, “I am sure with our commitment to improving, we will be able to move forward from here successfully.”

Rita Zeidner is an award-winning writer in Falls Church, Va., who has been covering HR management issues for various SHRM publications for nearly two decades.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.