Managing employee performance can be tricky. It’s important for managers to make strong attempts to rectify negative employee conduct or poor performance. We remain consistent by following progressive discipline guidelines.

June 26, 2023

What is Progressive Discipline?

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In any organization, maintaining a harmonious and productive work environment is crucial for success. One important aspect of achieving this is through the effective implementation of progressive discipline. Progressive discipline is a structured approach to addressing employee performance or conduct issues, with the goal of correcting behavior and enabling personal growth while preserving the employment relationship. In this article, I explore just what progressive discipline is and how you should use it to create a fair and supportive workplace culture.

progressive discipline

Understanding Progressive Discipline

Progressive discipline is a system designed to address (and hopefully rectify) employee misconduct or poor performance through a series of escalating disciplinary measures. Its primary objective is to guide employees toward improvement and provide opportunities for growth rather than simply imposing punitive actions. By using progressive discipline, you can demonstrate a commitment to fair treatment, provide clear expectations and encourage positive change. Click here for another article on when managers should use these practices.

Steps of Progressive Discipline

  1. Informal Counseling: The initial stage of progressive discipline involves informal discussions between the employee and you, their supervisor. During this conversation, you identify the areas of concern, provide specific feedback and explore potential solutions. This step emphasizes open communication and the opportunity for the employee to address the issue and improve their performance.
  2. Verbal Warning: If the performance or conduct issue persists or escalates, a verbal warning may be issued. This step involves a more formal conversation in which you clearly communicate the problem, the expected changes and the potential consequences of continued misconduct or poor performance. The purpose is to reinforce the seriousness of the situation and the need for improvement.
  3. Written Warning: If the problem persists despite verbal warnings, a written warning is issued. This written documentation provides a more formal record of the issue, the expectations for improvement and the potential consequences if the situation does not improve by a certain timeframe. It is essential that the written warning is specific, objective and offers guidance on how the employee can rectify the problem.
  4. Performance Improvement Plan: In cases where the employee fails to address the performance issue (note, NOT behavior issue) even after receiving a written warning, a short-term Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) may be necessary. I’ve seen PIPs last anywhere from 30 days to 6 months. The timing depends on your culture and philosophy. I recommend the maximum PIP no longer than 3 months when developed properly. If you are looking for a sample of a PIP or other performance management templates, click here.
  5. Termination: Termination is the final step of progressive discipline and should only be implemented when all previous efforts have failed to bring about the desired improvement. ALWAYS consult your HR Business Partner before you decide on this step. Your HRBP will help determine the level of risk with any termination. It is crucial that employers follow legal guidelines, review the employee’s disciplinary history and ensure that the decision is fair and justifiable. Termination should be viewed as a last resort and utilized only when all other options have been exhausted.

Effective Implementation of Progressive Discipline

To ensure the success of progressive discipline (which is correcting behavior; not terminating it), employers should consider the following guidelines:

  1. Consistency: Applying progressive discipline consistently across the organization is essential to avoid claims of favoritism or unfair treatment. All employees should be treated equally when addressing performance or conduct issues.
  2. Clarity: Clearly communicate expectations and standards to employees from the get go. A well-defined employee handbook or code of conduct can serve as a point of reference during the progressive discipline process.
  3. Documentation: Maintain detailed records of discussions, warnings and any improvements made by the employee. Documentation provides evidence of the steps taken and helps protect the organization in the event of legal disputes.
  4. Timeliness: Address performance or conduct issues promptly to prevent them from escalating. The earlier the intervention, the greater the chance of resolving the issue before it becomes a significant problem.
  5. Support and Training: Offer employees the necessary support, resources and training to help them improve their performance or address behavioral issues. This can include mentoring, coaching or providing additional training opportunities.

Progressive discipline is a valuable tool for organizations to address employee performance or conduct issues in a fair and constructive manner. By following a step-by-step approach, you can guide your employees towards improvement while maintaining a positive work environment.

Remember, the ultimate goal of progressive discipline is to help employees grow and succeed while preserving the employment relationship. When implemented effectively, progressive discipline promotes a culture of fairness, accountability and continuous improvement within the organization.

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