To operate efficiently, most businesses follow workplace rules, policies, and standards. In small businesses, the enforcement of rules is often done on a casual basis by dropping a few well-placed hints in an employee’s direction. However, there are situations when even open and frequent communication doesn’t always work. That being said, a progressive discipline system can be a solution to this. Employees need to know the consequences of unacceptable behaviour or poor performance in advance, so don’t wait until a crisis arises to set up your disciplinary program.
What is progressive discipline? It does not mean automatic termination. In fact, in all but the most serious cases, you’ll want to avoid terminating employees. You do, however, need to respond quickly as your employee may assume his/her performance is satisfactory unless a concern is specifically identified.
Progressive discipline is an established system where the severity of the consequence increases with each infringement of the rules or standards. Typically, the progression is:
In deciding to implement a progressive discipline program, a system that is viewed as fair is more likely to receive employees’ support. A fair policy means discipline must be applied consistently to all employees in an unbiased manner. Fair discipline is also easier to defend and justify in a legal setting, should the need arise.
A fair and lawful discipline system should include the following:
- Ensuring all employees are aware of workplace policies and standards; and the consequences of inappropriate behaviour or performance deficiency.
- Giving an employee written notice that there is an issue or deficiency and thoroughly explaining your expectations. This would include providing the employee an opportunity to explain his/her behaviour.
- Providing an opportunity for the employee to change his/her behaviour, possibly through coaching.
- Including a method of measurement so all parties know when appropriate changes have been achieved.
- Giving specific examples to assist in clarifying your expectations.
- Agreeing on a time frame for achievement (i.e. with a follow-up date).
- Ensuring the employee is aware of the consequences should he/she not achieve the prescribed changes.
- Documenting progress each step of the way.
The purposes of progressive discipline are:
- Putting a stop to the unacceptable behavior or performance deficiency.
- Retaining the employee as a respected and productive member of your team.
Usually, after a specified time period (e.g., six months or a year) passes without another infraction, your employee earns a “clean slate.” Any later infractions will start the process again with an oral or written warning.
Some cases of misconduct are so severe that you may wish to skip some steps in the process. For example, assaults, stealing, gross insubordination, etc., might all justify immediate action. That being said, don’t fire anyone on the spot! Termination is a serious action and should not be done in haste. You need to investigate and confirm what happened and who was responsible. You might proceed straight to suspension, and suspend the employee pending a thorough and immediate investigation. Your actions beyond that will be governed by the outcome of your investigation. It may justify termination; or a suspension may be deemed adequate, with the consequence for similar or repeated behavior being termination.
When implementing progressive discipline, remain consistent in your approach and thorough in your documentation. To maintain the integrity and value of your program, treat all employees fairly, respectfully, and equally. By following a pre-set process, both you and your employees will be fully aware of performance and behaviour expectations and the consequences should your workplace standards or rules not be met.
Susan Alley, VP of HR Services
Alley is a senior executive with significant consulting experience in human resources in both unionized and non-unionized environments. Alley has provided strategic and practical solutions to internal and external client corporations in a variety of industry sectors including financial services, hospitality, real estate, retail, healthcare, manufacturing, government, professional services and high tech. Her strong leadership, communication and problem solving skills, coupled with a broad range of experience, provide a strategic and disciplined approach to customer service, business, and human resources management.