Using Progressive Discipline

To discipline employees effectively, follow these seven steps.

Many companies either have a progressive discipline policy in place or follow one in practice. And it's not hard to see why: Used properly, progressive discipline gives managers the tools they need to make fair, consistent, and legally defensible disciplinary decisions. Because it's based on communication and collaboration, true progressive discipline also helps employees improve, which is the ultimate goal of any disciplinary system.

But how do you use progressive discipline to get results? How do you decide what type of discipline is appropriate in a particular situation? And how do you deliver that disciplinary message in a way that produces actual improvement? By following the seven steps below:

Step 1: Gather Information

You need to know what's really going on before you can decide how to address it. Some situations are relatively clear cut: For example, an employee has been showing up to work late, missed a deadline, or failed to follow required safety procedures. However, if it's tough to tell exactly what the problem is or who's causing it, you may need to investigate a bit before deciding what to do. This can happen if, for example, one employee accuses another of misconduct. (For more information on this, see Nolo's article Investigate a Workplace Complaint.)

Step 2: Assess the Severity

How is the employee's problem affecting the company? It's important to determine the answer to this question before you impose discipline, for several reasons: It will help you choose an appropriate disciplinary measure, give you a basis for objective, consistent disciplinary decisions, and allow you to communicate the importance of the problem -- and why it has to change -- to the employee.

Step 3: Decide How to Respond

The point of progressive discipline is proportionate response: choosing a disciplinary measure that reflects how serious the problem is. In choosing a disciplinary measure, consider:

  • The effect of the behavior: What impact is the behavior having on other employees, customers, business opportunities, and so on?
  • The frequency of the behavior: A first-time problem calls for less formal intervention, while repeat offenders warrant a heightened response.
  • The employee's disciplinary history: If you've already disciplined the employee for the same problem, tougher discipline will be necessary.
  • The legality of the behavior: Illegal behavior calls for more serious discipline.

Step 4: Prepare to Talk to the Employee

Plan ahead for your meeting, so you don't respond emotionally -- and so you're ready to explain the problem and why it has to change. Make sure you have a few concrete examples of what the employee is doing wrong. You should also be prepared to explain exactly what the employee needs to improve and why. You might find it helpful to bring a copy of company policies, the employee's job description, performance appraisals, or other documents where these expectations are clearly stated.

Step 5: Meet With the Employee

This is where your preparation will pay off in an honest, respectful session that paves the way for improvement. When you meet, you'll want to start by telling the employee what the problem is and how it's affecting the company. If you've already discussed this problem with the employee, you should briefly review those conversations.

You should listen carefully to the employee's response, both to make sure that discipline is in order and to find out why the problem is happening.

Once you and the employee have talked about the problem, it's time to start thinking about solutions. Help the employee come up with ways to solve the problem and get back on track: An employee who helps develop the action plan is much more likely to stick to it. After you come up with a general plan for improvement, talk about the details, especially what needs to happen, by when.

Step 6: Document

There are many important reasons why you must put disciplinary decisions in writing. Of course, you'll want written proof that the employee was aware of the problem and received a fair chance to improve, if the issue ever ends up in court. But documenting disciplinary decisions also helps you make sure you and the employee agree about what happened and what the employee will do about it. It creates a record for you or the employee's future managers and helps you identify patterns of problems on your team.

Step 7: Follow Up

Remember, the ultimate goal of discipline is to fix the problem and improve the employee's performance. You'll need to check in often on the status of the action plan and work closely with the employee to ensure a positive outcome. Progressive discipline is a process, not a single meeting or document. To get the most out of it, you need to stay involved until the problem is solved.

For more information, see The Progressive Discipline Handbook: Smart Strategies for Coaching Employees, by Margie Mader-Clark and Lisa Guerin.

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