Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Five-Step Program for Effective Discipline

The Five-Step Program for Effective Discipline

Reprinted with permission from HR Matters E-Tips, copyright Personnel Policy Service, Inc., Louisville, KY, all rights reserved, the HR Policy and Employment Law Compliance Experts for over 35 years, 1-800-437-3735.  Personnel Policy Service markets group legal service benefits and publishes HR information products, including the free weekly electronic newsletter, HR Matters E-Tips (  This article is not intended as legal advice.  Readers are encouraged to seek appropriate legal or other professional advice.

No one likes to discipline employees, and as a result supervisors may ignore problem behavior just to avoid confrontation. But, an effective disciplinary procedure is a necessary component of solid employment policies. Below are four pointers to help you determine what type of discipline is appropriate and a five-step progressive disciplinary system you can implement. 

Yet, inaction can be equally dangerous if employee behavior problems are consistently ignored. When your managers do not actively address poor performance and misconduct, morale and productivity will suffer.

You can relieve some of this unavoidable stress by establishing clear expectations for employee behavior and by training supervisors to take a proactive approach using a five-step combination of corrective counseling and progressive discipline. This approach should require supervisors to confront employee performance and misconduct problems and to document the proceedings. Further, it should give employees specific feedback, plus action plans and timelines for improvement.

* Four Considerations to Determine the Appropriate Discipline *

The type of corrective action you should take in a given situation generally depends on four issues: (1) the nature and seriousness of the infraction, (2) whether it is a first time or repeat offense, (3) past handling of similar disciplinary problems, and (4) whether there are special circumstances impacting the level of needed response.

(Download free Disciplinary Procedure model policy including HR best practices and legal background.)

* Step One: Informal Counseling *

Unless an employee has engaged in a serious or repeated offense, the most appropriate initial response normally is to have an informal, yet specific, solutions-oriented coaching session with the employee. During this discussion you should:

1. Remind the employee of pertinent policies and work rules;

2. Provide concrete examples of how the employee’s behavior or performance has fallen short of expectations;

3. Explain the impact of the employee’s deficiencies on the organization and coworkers; and

4. Describe actions the employee needs to take to correct the problem.

In many instances, having one or two candid discussions is all you need to help a wayward employee get back on track.

* Steps Two Through Five: Progressive Discipline *

When the informal coaching attempts fail, or when there is more serious misconduct, formal disciplinary action is necessary. Most organizations follow a “progressive discipline” policy where employees incur increasingly severe consequences for repeated infractions or for the continued failure to remedy deficiencies. Typically, the normal progression in this type of a system is a formal verbal warning, one or two written warnings, suspension, and, finally, termination.

1. Oral warning and counseling. Here, you identify the problem, state your expectations, and explain the adverse consequences if uncorrected. This first disciplinary step is similar to the informal coaching session since it is intended to counsel the employee on improvement.

However, the employee should understand that he is now at risk for additional disciplinary action if he does not improve. You should keep a confidential record of the session and put a copy in the employee’s personnel file. 

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2. Written warning. If the employee’s behavior does not improve, a written warning should follow. As with oral notice, you again inform the employee of the performance expectations and required changes, but also give the employee formal written notice conveying the increased seriousness. A copy of the warning also should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.

3. Suspension. The next step is a suspension, often referred to as a “decision-making leave.” Its purpose is to place the employee on final notice and force a commitment to improve, or face termination.

4. Termination. If all efforts fail and the employee’s performance does not improve or misconduct continues, the final step is termination. (Of course, in certain circumstances involving particularly bad behavior, termination may be appropriate as the only disciplinary step.)

To ensure that discharge is the proper response, all decisions should be reviewed by at least one level of management above the immediate supervisor, and by the HR manager. This review provides a system of checks and balances and should catch questionable decisions that warrant further legal review.

* Four More Tips to Effective Discipline *

Once you have decided to implement a progressive disciplinary system, you also have to support it with your policies and procedures. To this end, you should:

1. Develop sound written policies. It is safest to have a written discipline policy that provides clear guidelines and, at the same time, reserves your right to exercise discretion in the actual handling of unacceptable behavior or performance. Some employers resist developing a written discipline policy on the grounds that they want to maintain desired flexibility. This approach can easily lead to arbitrary, inconsistent, and even discriminatory treatment of employees.

(Download free Disciplinary Procedure model policy including HR best practices and legal background.)

2. Implement disciplinary procedures fairly and carefully. Make it clear to your workforce that the goal of your discipline system is correction of problem behaviors and not punishment for the sake of punishment. Employees are more likely to accept discipline when counseling and disciplinary procedures emphasize employee improvement and when warnings are given before more severe discipline is imposed. At every phase of corrective action, the employee should be given the opportunity to respond and give feedback.

3. Train supervisors in their roles and responsibilities. Supervisors are management’s frontline contact and play a pivotal role in dealing with conduct and performance issues. You should support this role by providing proper training to spot and handle problem behaviors and by lending expertise, guidance, and support when formal disciplinary action is necessary. In addition, supervisors should be carefully trained about the vital relationship between proper discipline and employment law compliance.

4. Require and maintain accurate documentation. Proper documentation of employee problems and related corrective actions is essential to support and validate your disciplinary process. First, it provides an accurate accounting of the steps taken to help the employee improve and can be used to evaluate the employee. Second, it provides a critical line of defense if you have to justify your actions or defend a lawsuit. 

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at

The Disability Benefits E-book: at

Layoff, Preferred Lists at


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