Terminating employment always comes with risk, even when it’s done for good cause. You can reduce this risk by using progressive discipline. As its name suggests, progressive discipline involves a progression of disciplinary actions with escalating consequences. When used to give employees with behavioral or performance problems time and opportunity to improve, it demonstrates good faith. And if the process results in termination, you can show the termination was for cause.
How Progressive Discipline Works
Progressive discipline generally begins with a conversation. This initial conversation is meant to nip any poor behavior in the bud. Often this conversation will be part of your regular coaching or check-ins with the employee, and some HR professionals view this as a step before actual progressive discipline. You make the employee aware of their unsatisfactory behavior or performance, make your expectations clear, give them any guidance or tools available to help them succeed, and allow them to bring their concerns to your attention.
If the employee fails to improve after coaching, the next step generally is to give them a verbal warning and let them know additional discipline may follow if they don’t improve.
The next escalation is usually a written warning, signed off on by the employee. This is also the point at which you may want to consider a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), which is essentially a formalized action plan for employee improvement. A PIP is typically at least 60 days, has commitments from both the employee and management, and contains realistic, attainable goals. PIPs generally make more sense in situations where an employee is having performance issues rather than behavioral issues; for instance, giving an otherwise good employee 90 days to improve their typing skills makes sense, whereas giving someone even 30 days to stop sexually harassing their co-worker does not. Whether you give a simple written warning or implement a PIP, make sure you are perfectly clear as to what will happen should they fail to improve or modify their behavior.
If the problem isn’t resolved after a written warning or PIP, stay true to your word and proceed to the next step, whether that is another written warning, a final written warning, suspension, or termination.
Some Tips for Using Progressive Discipline
First and foremost, implement progressive discipline as a general guideline for managers, not as a policy that has to be followed in every case. Your employee handbook should have a policy that puts employees on notice that poor performance or bad behavior will lead to discipline, but it should not lay out a specific escalation process. If you tell employees that they’ll be subject to a certain set of steps or entitled to a certain process, they can hold you to that policy later and claim they’ve been discriminated against if they don’t receive the benefit of each step in the process. And there are of course occasions in which progressive discipline should not be used. Violence or threats of violence, for example, often merit immediate termination following an expedient investigation.
Second, it’s imperative that you document everything throughout the progressive discipline process. Even a verbal warning should be noted in the employee’s personnel file. If something isn’t in writing, it might as well not have happened.
Third, whenever possible (and practical) have another person in the room for these conversations. Having an HR representative or other manager present to witness disciplinary actions will reduce your risk if an employee later claims the conversation went down differently than it did.
Fourth, stick to facts. You’re disciplining an employee because they’ve done something wrong or poorly. Focusing on the facts of the case provides the employee with a clear path going forward and protects you if the employee later challenges you on any of the steps of the process.
Finally, be compassionate, but not apologetic, particularly if you’ve reached the point of termination. If you’ve followed your internal progressive discipline policy and the employee has failed to improve, the employee shouldn’t be surprised if termination occurs.