Progressive discipline is a term used to describe a step-by-step approach to discipline, usually with increasingly severe levels of discipline for repeat offenses. In legal terms, it is called “due process.” It is a legally defendable system that will help you to administer discipline in a fair and consistent way.
Keep in mind that the employee does not have a “right” to progressive discipline. In a way, it is a company benefit. In some instances, such as engaging in illegal behavior such as theft or violence, you can terminate an employee without going through the progressive discipline system. If an employee sues for wrongful discharge, the law will usually be on your side without too much trouble.
However, when it comes to discipline for not following company rules (i.e., frequent absences) or just poor performance (i.e., not meeting sales goals), you will need more justification for terminating an employee to protect the company in case of a lawsuit. How do you prove, for instance, that you terminated the underperforming salesman for lack of sales rather than because he was over 40 years old? You may think it is obvious, but a jury may not. Progressive discipline becomes your ally in this case.
The most important points in the disciplinary process are:
- The Company must be fair, objective, and handle all employees in the same way (i.e. do not discriminate or warn some employees for behavior that you ignore in other employees)
Document, document, document! If you don’t write it down, it did not happen! This is doubly important when the matter goes outside the Company’s walls – the Department of Labor, Unemployment Claims Examiner, etc. They will ask for documentation of what the employee did, and what you did – in writing.
So make it a habit to document disciplinary action, sit down with the employee to discuss it, give them a copy and put a copy in their Employee File. It will save you a lot of time and money later on. Progressive Disciplinary policies should be included in the Employee Handbook. (For over 90 free sample policies, go to the Employee Handbook Project.)