The 5 steps of progressive discipline

Progressive disciplineA progressive discipline system is the best way to correct employee performance problems.

It’s also the best way to protect against wrongful termination lawsuits. It allows you to ensure that any employee fired because of inferior performance was treated fairly and in accordance with your company’s policies.

Here’s a five-step model for progressive discipline:

1. Oral reprimand

As soon as a supervisor perceives a worker’s performance problem, he or she should issue an oral reprimand. The supervisor should ask the worker whether there are any long-term problems or skill deficiencies that need to be corrected. Have the manager keep detailed notes or prepare a memo to file about the conversation, in case further action is necessary.

2. Written warning

If the problem persists (or more problems emerge), the supervisor should provide the employee with a written warning detailing the objectionable behavior, along with the consequences. Explain the standards that will be used to judge the employee. Specify time frames for performance improvement, and state that continued failure will result in termination. Place a copy of the memo in the employee’s personnel file. Have the worker sign a copy to acknowledge receipt. Otherwise, the employee could claim that he or she never received it.

3. Final written warning

If performance does not improve, deliver a final written warning, perhaps accompanied by probationary status for the employee. Include copies of the previous warnings, indicate specific areas in which the employee must improve and specify the time period within which the worker’s behavior or performance must be corrected.

4. Termination review

If the problem persists, the supervisor must notify HR. In general, supervisors shouldn’t have final firing authority. Someone else should evaluate the full range of discharge-related considerations.

Before taking any final action, consider these questions: 

  • Does the employee claim a contractual relationship exists, and if so, does that assertion have merit?
  • Has the employee recently filed a workers’ compensation claim, complained to a government agency about alleged workplace violations or taken any other actions that might make a discharge look like unlawful retaliation on your part?
  • Is there an issue relating to good faith and fair dealing, especially if the termination involves a long-term employee?

Even if the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you still can survive a challenge to a firing. But you must be able to prove that the circumstances of the particular case justify your actions.

5. Termination

Only after you’ve completed all these steps should you go ahead with firing your employee. You’ll do so knowing you gave him or her every opportunity to succeed.

If you’ve documented your entire progressive discipline process, courts will know that, too.