What Is Progressive Discipline for Employees?

Learn what progressive discipline is and how it can benefit your company.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

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. For example, an informal coaching session might be appropriate for an employee who is tardy or violates a minor work rule, while a more serious intervention -- or even termination -- might be called for if an employee commits serious misconduct or doesn't improve a performance problem after receiving several opportunities to do so.

Most large companies use some form of progressive discipline, although they don't necessarily call it by that name. Whether they are referred to as positive discipline programs, performance improvement plans, corrective action procedures, or some other title, these systems are all similar at their core, although they might vary in the details. All are based on the principle that the company's disciplinary response should be appropriate and proportionate to the employee's conduct.

The Benefits of Progressive Discipline

Using progressive discipline can help you get employees back on track. Done right, progressive discipline can:

  • allow managers to intervene and correct employee behavior at the first sign of trouble
  • enhance communication between managers and employees
  • help managers achieve higher performance and productivity from their employees
  • improve employee morale and retention by demonstrating that there are rewards for good performance and consequences for poor performance
  • avoid expensive replacement costs
  • ensure consistency and fairness in dealing with employee problems, and
  • lay the groundwork for fair, legally defensible employment termination for employees who cannot or will not improve.

Progressive discipline also helps you avoid the consequences of allowing workplace problems to continue unchecked. If you don't intervene, the employee may not know that his or her behavior or actions are unacceptable. Not only will you have lost an opportunity to help the employee improve, but your company will continue to suffer the consequences of the employee's problem, which could result in reduced productivity and profits, quality control problems, lost opportunities or customers, low employee morale, and high turnover.

Using progressive discipline appropriately will also help your company stay out of legal trouble. Progressive discipline requires you to let employees know what you expect, to be fair, consistent, and objective in imposing discipline, to include employees in the process of improvement, and to document your actions and decisions properly. By following these actions, you'll ensure that employees who are unable to unwilling to improve won't have the legal ammunition to fuel a lawsuit. And, if you are consistently respectful to employees, few of them will be motivated to sue.

Getting Results With Progressive Discipline

A progressive discipline system or policy provides a basic framework for handling employee problems fairly and consistently, but it's only a start. To get the best results from progressive discipline, you can't just move mechanically from one disciplinary measure to the next, until it's time to fire the employee. Instead, you must involve the employee in the process. The employee's engagement in improving his or her performance, behavior, or attitude will ultimately determine whether progressive discipline is successful.

For information on what steps to follow when disciplining an employee, see the article Using Progressive Discipline for Employees. For detailed strategies and techniques that will help you engage employees in the disciplinary process, see The Progressive Discipline Handbook, by Margie Mader-Clark and Lisa Guerin (Nolo).

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