People often think of discipline as something negative. It’s what you do to correct the behavior of children or dogs when they misbehave. But discipline is also a positive force that helps you achieve your goals. Consider top athletes and high-achievers; it’s not just skill that makes them successful, but also discipline. No personal success, achievement or goal can be realized without discipline.

That’s how you should view employee discipline: as a systematic way for both managers and employees to work together in achieving goals and overcoming problems. But for a system to work, it needs to be documented and followed consistently by employees and managers alike.

Documenting employee discipline shows how specific company policies were violated, and that the employee was made aware of it. This can go a long way toward staving off an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigation.

Elements of employee discipline

Employee discipline can take many forms and may range from mild actions, such as coaching, to more serious ones, such as verbal or written warnings. But it all starts with fair expectations, a documented process and consistent communication.

  • Create clear, consistent rules. Spell out all of your company policies from dress code to acceptable behavior to productivity goals in an employee guide to make your expectations known.
  • Practice consistent enforcement. Make sure managers address all infractions immediately and consistently so everyone is treated the same way. Otherwise, you could be guilty of unequal or biased treatment, which could work against you if a terminated employee files a complaint.
  • Establish a discipline process. When an employee isn’t meeting performance goals or breaks a policy, it’s important to take action right away. Ignoring a violation could be seen as biased by other employees, or lead the employee to believe the action isn’t a problem. Your process for handling disciplinary issues might include:
    • Progressive discipline. Using this process, you increase the level of severity of your response when an employee doesn’t correct an issue. You might start with a verbal warning, in which you tell the employee specifically what rule or expectation was broken, and what the concern with it is. If the violation happens again, provide a written warning. Ask for a correction to the behavior by a specific time. If after one or more written warnings, you don’t see improvement, you may put the employee on probation or suspension, or move to termination. Documenting the steps you take to correct a problem protects you, and gives the employee clear direction about what you expect.
    • Performance improvement plan (PIP). Use this method when an employee’s performance or actions are not meeting expectations. Use the PIP to outline specific next steps, measurable goals and check points to help the employee improve performance in specific areas.

Now that you know how to establish guidelines, let’s talk about the different levels of discipline. When using progressive discipline as a tool for change, the following actions can be used in order — each imposing a higher level of consequences. Keep in mind that similar behaviors must be treated consistently. If you give one employee a verbal warning for being late, you must do the same for all employees. Additionally, it’s important to note that serious offenses (such as stealing or threatening violence) justify immediate termination.

  • Give verbal warnings. Keep a record of each time you give an employee a verbal warning or discuss improvements needed. With good documentation of an employee’s pattern of poor performance and steps you took to address it, you can establish that termination wasn’t related to discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, disability, or national origin.
  • Provide written warnings. After speaking to your employee about any behavior or performance issues that violate your policies, you should move on to written warnings. Recap past verbal warnings; state why the issue is a problem, and include a date by which you expect to see improvement.
In any formal discipline meeting, it’s recommended to have another manager present. Ask the employee to sign the disciplinary document or a PIP. This prevents the employee from claiming he or she wasn’t aware that the issue was a problem. If he or she refuses to sign, ask the witnessing supervisor to sign indicating the employee’s refusal.
  • Offer probation. You may want to offer a probation period after a final written warning as part of a progressive discipline process. Probation gives your employee one last chance to make a change before termination. It might include a reduction in pay, reduction in duties, retraining or closer supervision.
  • Terminate. If the employee doesn’t make improvements after your verbal and written warnings, the next step is termination. Have a meeting with your employee, discuss the progressive discipline process, the documentation and attempts you made to help the employee improve, and then terminate the employee.

Help documenting employee discipline

Documenting employee issues and disciplinary actions can be sensitive and cumbersome. The Progressive Discipline app can help you keep everything on track and ensure both you and your managers follow all the right steps. This web-based tool allows you to document violations, create reports and communicate the justification for disciplinary action to employees in total confidence — all while minimizing confusion and conflict.

Key Takeaways:
  • You should view employee discipline as a systematic way for both managers and employees to work together in achieving goals and overcoming problems.
  • Employee discipline should start with fair expectations, a documented process and consistent communication.
  • Employees should be disciplined immediately and consistently.
  • Progressive discipline allows you to increase the severity of your response when an employee doesn’t correct an issue.
  • A performance improvement plan allows you to outline next steps and set measurable goals.