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How to Administer a Progressive Discipline Policy

A progressive discipline policy is designed to provide a structured corrective action process to address employee behavior and performance issues. Employers should have a written policy in place that outlines the steps in the progressive discipline process but also reserves the right to skip steps in certain circumstances. A clear statement regarding at-will employment status can also help employers who want the structure of a progressive discipline policy while allowing some flexibility for extenuating circumstances.

Step 1: Verbal Warning

The intent of the verbal warning step is to address an issue with an employee before it becomes more serious and to work with the employee to find a solution.

This first step of progressive discipline provides an opportunity for the supervisor to discuss with the employee performance or conduct that is minor in nature but nonetheless unacceptable, as well as the expectations for improvement. For example, an employee who arrives to work late twice within a couple of weeks should be counseled regarding the unacceptable tardiness.

The supervisor should discuss with the employee the impact tardiness has on the workplace, review any internal policies that apply to punctuality and provide the employee with an opportunity to explain the reason for their late arrivals. The employee should be advised as to the expectations for improvement and the consequences if improvement is not made or if additional infractions occur. The supervisor should document the details of the conversation with the employee.

Step 2: Written Warning

The purpose of the written warning is to formally address an issue with an employee that has continued despite a verbal warning or that is serious enough to warrant skipping the verbal warning, with the intent of stressing the need for the employee's conduct or performance to improve.

A written warning would be appropriate for an employee who continues to report to work late after receiving a verbal warning. An employer may also issue a written warning when an employee's conduct warrants skipping the verbal warning, such as a no call/no show to work without extenuating circumstances.

The supervisor should complete a written warning form outlining the reason for the disciplinary action, the corrective action required, and the consequences if improvement is not made or if additional infractions occur. Solutions to improve should be discussed when appropriate. The employee, supervisor and department head should all review and sign the written warning.

Some employers choose to make the written warning the final warning in the disciplinary process. This may include circumstances in which the employee's repeated conduct is blatant and considered insubordination, such as an employee who continues to be tardy to work without demonstrating any effort to arrive to work on time. If so, the employer should clearly indicate such to the employee.

Step 3: Final Warning and Suspension

When performance or conduct issues continue despite prior warnings or when immediate action is necessary due to the severity of an employee's conduct, a final warning or last chance agreement is the next step, with or without a temporary suspension. The purpose of the final warning is to clearly inform the employee that the employer will not tolerate any further infractions and that the employee is being provided with a last chance to correct their performance or behavior before being terminated. The last chance agreement serves the same purpose while also asking the employee to make the assertion that they will improve. While a last chance agreement isn't necessary, it can be helpful to engage an employee in the commitment to improve their performance or conduct.

For example, a final warning for tardiness would likely occur after numerous incidents of the employee reporting to work late after warnings, whereas a final warning for serious misconduct such as fighting at work or reporting to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol could occur after just one or two incidents.

The final warning should describe the performance or conduct issue, reference previous coaching and warnings given, describe the steps necessary for the employee to retain their position, and clearly indicate that the consequence of further infractions is termination of employment.

Depending on the nature of the infraction, suspension may be appropriate to convey the seriousness of the employee's unacceptable performance or conduct. Suspension may also be necessary while an employer investigates allegations of misconduct, such as stealing from the workplace. If the employee is suspended, caution should be taken to ensure compliance with wage and hour laws.

Step 4: Termination

If the employee fails to meet the expectations as described in the final warning or last chance agreement, termination of employment should be initiated. Employers may choose to consult with legal counsel for a review of the progressive discipline documentation prior to making the final termination decision. At this point, the employee should be fully aware of their performance or conduct issue(s), and the termination decision should not come as a surprise. 


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