Creating a Progressive Discipline Policy — and Yes, Your Business Needs One

Progressive discipline policies can be used to fix employees’ mistakes before they become irredeemable

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Using progressive discipline in your workplace can save productivity, performance, and jobs. We have tips on how to create a policy and roll it out

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a 3-part series about progressive discipline. Read the second installment: ‘Disciplinary Meetings: What to Discuss with Your Employee’. Read the third installment: ‘Failed Disciplinary Action: What to Do When Your Employee Doesn’t Improve?’.

Imagine you’re driving home one day on autopilot. You speed past a police car well above the limit, see them too late, but luckily don’t get pulled over. Chances are you’ll do it again the next day. If you keep speeding and the officer never pulls you over, you’d probably keep doing it. This must be your lucky stretch of highway!

Imagine a year later when renewing your plates, a stack of speeding tickets is waiting for you. You’ll need to pay the fines or not get renewed.

You’d say, “That’s not fair, why didn’t you stop me?”

“You knew the rules,” they’d reply, “but you chose to break them. Now it’s time to pay.”

For too many employees, the annual performance evaluation is a repeat of this scenario.

Some employers don’t bother to discipline staff members for mistakes they make during the year (“they knew the rules!”) then blast them with violations when it hurts — at performance review time. It’s an all-too-common — but unfair — practice that demonstrates exactly why every business needs (and needs to use) a progressive disciplinary policy.

Progressive discipline has a bad name

Some managers simply hate to correct staff members: they let the problem grow and fester until it becomes untenable. At some point down the road, they’ll end up firing what might have been a salvageable employee because of their own discomfort.

If your employee had to choose between being corrected today or fired later, which do you think they’d prefer? That’s why you need a progressive discipline policy that’s fair and utilized to fix mistakes before they become irredeemable.

Progressive discipline policies may be avoided simply because of the name. Possibly renaming it a “Progressive Correction Policy” would make managers more amenable to using it, but whatever it’s called, every business needs to have one.

The goal of the policy isn’t to get someone out the door: it’s to correct behaviors and actions in order to fix the problem. With that objective in mind, you can begin to create and leverage a policy that saves productivity, performance, and jobs.

Where to begin with a progressive disciplinary policy

It starts with your employee handbook — rules and procedures contained in your handbook are your guide. These are areas important to the company because they list what’s expected of employees. When employees know exactly what’s required of them, they’re better able to adhere.

If you don’t know the rules of the game, how can you play? The handbook outlines the rules everyone must follow consistently. Failure to do so could put the business, coworkers, or employees at risk.

Creating a progressive discipline/correction policy

Developing a policy could be a management-level task, or you could ask for employee input. What are reasonable steps, within the parameters of your business, that can be taken to redirect employees to doing things correctly?

Creating an actionable pathway to correction is the goal, and it can mean salvaging an employee you’ve invested your time, resources, and training in.

Warnings

  1. Generally, businesses begin with verbal warnings. In most companies, the first verbal warning is not documented. When an employee comes in late for work or breaks a known rule, a quick mention is often enough to get them back on track. If the behavior continues, and a second warning or further correction is needed, it’s time to start documenting
  2. A second verbal warning is typically written up as a verbal warning. Many companies consider it a “first warning” since it’s the first that goes in the employee file. Most companies offer 1 or 2 documented verbal warnings before additional corrective steps are taken. The warning outlines the problem and sets a specific required goal to make the correction

It’s important to hear what the employee has to say with regard to the warning and let them challenge the correction. Consider and discuss what they have to say — you may change your mind about the warning or you may determine the need to move forward.

The goal of the policy isn’t to get someone out the door: it’s to correct behaviors and actions in order to fix the problem.

If the warning is documented, write up the mistake and let the employee document their side of the issue. Having the employee sign the document is helpful, but not necessary at any stage in the process.

Dealing with common problems through progressive discipline

One of the most common rule infractions is tardiness. For too many workers, tardiness becomes a difficult habit to break. Managers are loathed to complain about an otherwise good worker who simply can’t get to work on time, but that’s a mistake.

Rules are for everyone — failing to apply them evenly sends the wrong message. The employee who gets to work on time can feel unappreciated when others don’t.

If the tardy staffer has a legitimate reason for being late (public transportation issues, for example), consider shifting their schedule. But if they just can’t deal with getting up in the morning, be firm with taking disciplinary action. Others can do it — it’s required of the job and it’s unfair for them to be exempt.

Moving along the progressive track: formal warnings

If documented verbal warnings aren’t making a difference, it’s time to move on to more formal action. Formal warnings outline the problem and set a definitive timeline for correction.

In most companies, first, second, and third formal warnings state that failing to make the correction will have specific consequences. Many employers warn of a suspension if the change hasn’t occurred — this can be a powerful motivator. In the case of a tardy employee, losing a day’s pay in exchange for being 15 minutes late simply isn’t worth the risk. It often turns the behavior around immediately.

If the behavior isn’t corrected, consequences will need to increase — a 2-day or week’s suspension may be the progression. After 1 or 2 formal warnings, a final written warning may need to come along, where the consequence is termination of employment. In this scenario, no matter what the infraction is, the employee should have had ample time and warnings to correct the behavior. Their decision (not yours) to violate that should result in separation. It’s all in their hands.

It’s important to remember that rules must be applied evenly: choosing to correct one employee for a rule violation and not another could be considered discriminatory. Make sure corrective action is equitable.

Rolling out the new policy

If progressive correction is a new policy in your organization or you’re updating an old policy, communication will be key to rollout. Let staff know your goal is to save employees, not eliminate them.

The corrective steps are enforced just for that reason — to correct problems before they become impossible to fix. With that goal in mind, let the staff know the steps that will be taken to make sure they get back on track.

Even as you discuss progressive corrections, some behaviors and infractions are simply too significant to warrant progressive action. An employee who brings a weapon to work, attacks a colleague, or ignores significant safety protocols cannot be tolerated. When you communicate your policy, make sure to include that some behaviors can result in dismissal, even for a single offense.

Organizations that don’t use progressive correction may be missing out on opportunities to save otherwise valuable employees. When market conditions are challenging and it’s difficult to replace workers, allowing progressive correction is even more important. Turning a staff member who’s a drag on productivity into a real performer is a best practice that’s good for the employee, their coworkers, and the business.

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