Progressive Discipline in the Workplace

“As managers, sometimes we have to rectify our own mistakes. As a manager friend of mine once said, “Nobody understands a mistake like the poor person that made it.” Good managers accept individual responsibility, communicate the news and then correct the problem and move on to the next objective.

Sometimes we have to rectify the mistakes of our employees, usually in the form of a verbal or written reprimand, sometimes in the form of dismissal. Perhaps the biggest mistake most managers make is failing to write down and document disciplinary sessions. We do this from the best of motives, which is that we believe our verbal counseling will inspire the employee to do better. But if the employee does not do better, and we have to reprimand the employee again, it’s important to have a record of the previous reprimand.

If we reach the tipping point with an employee and decide to dismiss him or her, then it’s critical to have at least three written disciplinary notices in the employee’s file. An undocumented or sparsely documented employee file will not stand up under the scrutiny of a challenge from EEOC, the Department of Labor or other enforcement agencies. Here are our recommendations for “rectifying employee mistakes.”

Seay Management’s Recommendations On Progressive Discipline

In employment matters, the burden of proof is on the employer. We meet this burden of proof through complete, thorough and detailed documentation. One of the most important elements of documentation is progressive discipline. With a system of progressive discipline, consistently administered, you protect yourself against unfair charges of discrimination, unemployment claims and others. Here is our recommendation.

Step One:

Under a system of progressive discipline, if you have an employee who breaks a rule or who engages in improper behavior, you would administer a “verbal warning” on the first occasion. Even though we call this a “verbal” warning, it should still be written down, documented and placed in the personnel file. The employee should sign the form, indicating that he or she has seen it.

There is no regulation requiring an employee to sign the form; however, the employee signature makes the documentation stronger. The signature does not, necessarily, mean the employee agrees with the reprimand, only that he or she has seen it. If the employee refuses to sign the form, just make a note on the form that says, “Employee refused to sign,” and initial and date your notation. (To handle this sort of thing, one of my clients once had a form that read, “I hereby refuse to sign this form,” and she told me the employees would always sign that one . . . .)

Step Two:

If this occurs a second time (the same offence or a different one), you should counsel the employee again, this time in stronger terms, document the conversation with a “written correction” notice, and place it in the personnel file. Once again, it’s best to have the employee sign the form, indicating that he or she has seen it.

Step Three:

On the third occasion, whether for the same offense or a different one, the employee may be subject to dismissal. If you decide to dismiss the employee, you should fully and comprehensively document the dismissal on an official “separation notice,” and place this form in the personnel file. In most cases, the proper wording for verbally communicating the dismissal to the employee is something like, “We’ve decided to make a change, it’s not a good fit, and today is your last day.”

Except for the most severe offenses (such as theft or gross insubordination) an employer must have at least three separate, recent disciplinary documents in the employee’s personnel file, in order for a dismissal to stand up to a challenge. Discipline and dismissal are tough jobs and most of us don’t like them, but we also know that good managers take a deep breath, swallow hard, get into the game, and do what needs to be done.

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