How to develop and implement a progressive discipline policy

Tardiness, absenteeism, harassment, and discrimination are all serious issues that can occur in the workplace if your organization has no way of disciplining unacceptable behavior. The solution? Implementing a progressive discipline policy will allow you to enforce your standards for employee behavior and performance.

The word ‘progressive’ is vital here, as your disciplinary actions will increase in severity should the employee’s conduct not improve. This provides mutual benefit for employers and employees.

On the employee side, first-time offenses like absences or harassment receive verbal and written warnings before more serious actions are taken. That means employees won’t have to worry about losing their jobs over a single mess-up.

On the employer side, a progressive discipline policy ensures that misconduct won’t go unpunished while also protecting you from legal action (since your employees will receive a fair warning before suspension or termination).

The progressive discipline process will improve employee relations, retention rates, communication, and performance issues. Yet, there’s quite a bit to know if you want to develop a progressive discipline policy for your organization.

Every company is different, so you’ll need to determine how you’ll approach progressive discipline. For instance, you could only use two warnings instead of the traditional three, especially if you’re desperately trying to improve employee performance. Read on to learn how to develop a progressive discipline policy, including a template you can start using today.

Understanding progressive discipline as a concept

Progressive discipline appears throughout society, not just in the workplace. For example, you probably remember receiving marks on the chalkboard before eventually getting a detention slip back in school. This is a textbook example of progressive discipline because repeated misbehavior has escalating consequences.

Texas’s legal system also adopts a progressive model with its ‘three-strike rule‘ for felons. Whenever someone receives more than one criminal conviction, their sentences increase in severity. This culminates with the ‘third strike,’ where sentences bump up to 25 – 99 years, regardless of the felony in question.

The philosophy behind the concept is to deter employees from misbehaving or underperforming due to the consequences involved. At the same time, progressive discipline allows room for improvement due to repeated warnings.

In the workspace, this typically takes the form of performance improvement plans (PIPs). Whenever an employee begins to underperform, they receive a verbal warning that they need to pick things up and perform better. If their poor work performance continues, a written warning follows along with a performance improvement plan.

This plan contains a realistic timeframe (and actionable milestones) for the employee’s performance to recover. If they stick with the PIP and achieve their goals, the process works, and the employee can return to normal.

Should they continue to struggle, more severe consequences, such as termination of employment, are in order. It’s typical for human resources departments to develop progressive discipline policies that they include in the employee handbook (along with other company policies).

The core steps of the progressive discipline process

Most progressive discipline policies follow a 3 or 4-step process featuring escalating corrective actions. However, there’s no rule stating that you can’t develop your own spin on the traditional steps.

As an example, you may feel that 3 warnings don’t provide enough time for your employees to change their behavior. In that case, you could add an additional warning or two to give your employees more time.

Here’s an overview of the typical steps involved in progressive discipline for employees.

Step #1: Verbal warning

The first step is to administer a verbal warning whenever an employee misbehaves or underperforms. The warning should come from the employee’s immediate manager and should take place in private during a 1:1 meeting. Delivering verbal warnings during staff meetings is inappropriate and may embarrass or anger the employee in question, so keep things behind closed doors.

This type of informal warning provides awareness to the employee that there’s an issue, and the manager should also provide steps they can take to remedy it. For instance, if the employee is having behavioral issues (like using inappropriate language that’s offensive to others), the manager should provide actionable steps they can take to stop (like finding replacement words to say).

If your manager really wants to go the extra mile, they can provide the employee with online resources to improve their conduct/performance.

The importance of documenting verbal warnings

While this warning is strictly verbal, you still need to document it in the employee’s personnel file.

Why is that?

It’s because you must keep a detailed record of all disciplinary actions you take against employees to protect your organization from legal trouble. Any employee is free to file a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) if they feel they’ve experienced unfair treatment, which is why your HR department needs to document everything.

If you can provide evidence that you gave the employee numerous warnings and chances to improve before terminating them, you’ll safeguard yourself from costly lawsuits.

Here are some essential details you should include when you document verbal warnings:

  • The date and time that the warning was issued.

  • The reason for the verbal warning, as well as the steps the employee needs to take to recover.

  • Parties present during the meeting (i.e., manager and employee).

Step #2: Written warning

If the employee fails to improve their behavior or performance following the steps you provided during verbal counseling, the discipline escalates to a written warning that requires the employee’s signature.

Why should you make them sign the warning?

It’s to show without a fraction of a doubt that the employee is aware of the issue and the disciplinary procedures. Much like a speeding ticket, the signature isn’t a sign of agreement or an admission of guilt, just an acknowledgment.

Not only that, but you should provide space for the employee to provide their feedback/side of the story somewhere on the written warning. This gives them the chance to state their case and proves that you’re attempting to be as fair as possible when administering employee discipline.

Here’s what you should include in your written warnings:

  • The date and time that you issued the warning.

  • An explanation for the warning (i.e., repeated infractions of against your code of conduct or poor performance).

  • A performance improvement plan outlining how the employee can improve their behavior or work performance.

  • The impending final consequence if the employee does not improve (such as termination, suspension, or demotion).

  • Signatures of all parties involved.

Don’t forget to include written warnings in your employee personnel files to prove they happened. It’s up to you whether you want to include several written warnings before your final course of action. You can also designate a specific number of written warnings for each infraction. For example, misconduct like swearing could yield two written warnings, whereas something more serious, like harassment or bullying, only receives one warning before termination.

Step #3: (Optional) Final written warning

Some organizations choose to include a final written warning before terminating employees, but this is optional. At this point, the employee has already received a written warning (or several) and a performance improvement plan, so moving forward with your final course of action is acceptable if they ignore your warnings.

If the employee complains to the EEOC, you’ll have two documented warnings on file that prove why you chose to terminate them, so you should be fine. At the same time, final written warnings provide one last chance for employees to improve, which can be beneficial.

Whenever you present an employee with a final written warning, you must make it explicitly clear that the next course of action is immediate termination or suspension without pay. Once again, you should present the employee with an action plan outlining how they can redeem themselves.

At this stage, it’s normal to include a punishment alongside the final written warning, such as a brief suspension period without pay. This serves as a way to deter employees from escalating things to this point, encouraging them to stick with the PIP you provided during the initial written warning.

Here’s what you should include in your final written warning:

  • The date and time that you issued the warning.

  • An explanation of the unacceptable employee behavior in question (as well as the previous warnings they were given).

  • A PIP outlining how the employee can improve to avoid further consequences.

  • Signatures from all involved parties.

Just like your verbal and written warnings, final written warnings belong in your employee’s personnel file for safekeeping.

Step #4: Your final course of action (Termination of employment, suspension, demotion)

If your employee fails to improve during your follow-up meeting after the last written warning, you have no choice but to enact the final step of the disciplinary process – which is usually termination.

Other common final actions include:

  • Suspension without pay.

  • The permanent removal of certain privileges.

  • Demotion to a different role.

Which final punishment you choose is up to your discretion, and it can differ for each employee’s situation. For instance, if a salesperson continues to miss their quota, your final course of action could be to demote them to a non-sales role that better suits their skills.

Conversely, if the employee fails to stop bullying their coworkers, termination of employment is the way to go.

While terminating employees is never pleasant, it is necessary at times, especially when the employee is negatively affecting morale. Sometimes, terminating a toxic employee is the best thing you can do for your engagement and retention rates, but you should use extreme discretion before letting someone go.

Here are some steps you can take to prepare for terminating an employee:

  • Prepare the employee’s last paycheck and set up the termination of their benefits.

  • Double-check federal and state laws related to terminating employees.

  • Have a witness present at the time of termination.

  • Go over the evidence one final time and ensure your decision is entirely objective.

  • Prepare a written and dated termination notice and ensure all affected parties sign it.

  • Collect any company property from the employee, such as laptops, smartphones, and key fobs.

Progressive discipline policy template

Now that you’re familiar with the steps of the progressive discipline process, it’s time to put a unique policy together for your organization. To make this process easier, I’ve prepared a progressive discipline policy template that’s free to use. Also, here’s the progressive discipline policy for Vanderbilt University to give you a real-world example to analyze.

Policy brief

You should kick things off with a brief that states the policy’s purpose. This not only informs staff why you enacted the policy, but it also helps obtain buy-in to make adopting the process smoother.

Here’s an example:

This policy outlines the steps we’ll take to address employee misconduct. We recognize that we’re all human and make mistakes, which is why we want to give our team a chance to correct their behavior and improve their performance. At the same time, it’s our goal to ensure all serious issues are investigated and handled accordingly.


This section refers to who’s affected by the progressive discipline policy at your organization.

You can choose for it to only affect certain employees, but the most common option is to make the policy apply to everyone in your organization.

Outline the progressive discipline steps

Here is where you’ll outline the disciplinary steps you decide to use. Once again, it’s up to you to determine how many warnings you’ll administer before enacting the final punishment.

Most policies follow this outline:

  1. Verbal warning

  2. Written warning

  3. Final written warning

  4. Termination of employment

Your managers should notify your employees whenever they begin the progressive discipline process to avoid catching them off guard.

The last thing you want is for an employee to receive a written warning or suspension when they have no idea about the escalating consequences.

You also have the option of leaving the process up to your manager’s discretion, who may feel that it’s appropriate to repeat certain steps before moving on.

For example, a manager may feel they need to administer several verbal warnings before moving on to a written one. Providing managers with this level of freedom may make the process easier, so it’s something to consider.

Final thoughts: Progressive discipline policies

Employees’ actions must have consequences if you want to maintain a safe and productive work environment. Firing an employee the first time they do something wrong is way too harsh, which is why progressive discipline is so effective.

With a progressive discipline policy at your organization, you’ll be able to enforce your behavioral and performance standards while providing room for your employees to improve.