Progressive Disciplinary Action

The purpose of progressive disciplinary action is to improve employee performance. Progressive disciplinary action should not be confused with an immediate call for action for a serious violation of company rules, an illegal act, or other egregious behavior.

Even though the process is not intended as a punishment for an employee, it does afford the opportunity for the company to fairly, and with substantial documentation, terminate the employee who is unwilling or ineffective in improving his/her performance.

The process of progressive discipline usually (see BOTTOM LINE below) involves several steps presented to the employee in the order listed:

1. Counseling
2. Verbal Warning
3. Written Warning(s)
4. Suspension – may be skipped in many situations
5. Termination

COUNSELING is usually the initial step. There should be an explanation of the specific performance/attendance expectations. Try to determine why performance is less than standard. If appropriate, ask the employee if there is anything the company has not provided – training, equipment, etc. – that would allow the employee to improve. Set a time table for a re-visit of the issue. Explain to the employee the consequences if the behavior does not improve – progressive disciplinary action.

A VERBAL WARNING is usually the next step. If the counseling above does not satisfactorily improve performance, management should give the employee a verbal warning. Be sure the words “verbal warning” are used, as often the employee does not get the message. It is important to tell the employee that failure to correct the behavior will result in more severe disciplinary measures. Written documentation of a verbal warning should be placed in the employee’s personnel file. It need NOT be signed by the employee.

WRITTEN WARNING(S) usually follow a verbal warning that has not resulted in the expected improvement. The warning should include a description of the violation and be signed by both the employee and supervisor and placed in the employee’s personnel file. If the employee refuses to sign the warning, a witness should sign to confirm the warning was given/read to the employee. Time frame here is important, as the employee may substantially improve for some period of time, then drop back to an unsatisfactory performance level. In this case, a second or final written warning may be issued in lieu of suspension or termination.

SUSPENSION in some cases might be an effective inclusion in the progressive disciplinary process. An unpaid suspension usually works better for an hourly employee rather than a professional employee. Be careful of suspending exempt employees in light of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

TERMINATION results if the progressive process has failed to bring about the desired behavior changes in the employee.

BOTTOM LINE: There is no rigid set of steps, nor is there an inflexible rule that all steps must be followed, before terminating an employee. The circumstances surrounding each case, company precedent, and management judgment as to the least severe action that is necessary to correct the situation will help determine which step(s) to use.

The above information is provided for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. Questions, call Larry Elinskas at 804-966-8100.