When Progressive Discipline Is in Order


We have trained leaders, managers and supervisors in a lot of companies and almost all of those companies had some form of progressive discipline policy. The term “discipline” implies that the person receiving it has done something wrong or failed to follow rules, policies or procedures and you are trying to motivate the person with negative consequences to do it right in the future. As we discussed previously, motivation is just one of many possible reasons for failure and discipline seldom impacts performance when motivation is not the cause. When lack of motivation is the cause, understanding the consequences of continued failure can be a powerful tool for getting performance improvement. So how should you go about “progressive discipline”? We suggest a four step process beginning with an exploration of the causes of the initial failure and ending with “termination of employment” if the other three steps don’t work. Let’s look at these in order. Please note that the labels we use may be different than the ones used in your organization but hopefully the progression is similar. You should always check your organizations progressive discipline policy to make sure that you are in compliance. Also note that in some cases you can/should go to the last step (Termination) first, for example when the person violates a company policy on drug/alcohol use. But for now, let’s assume that we are dealing not with that type of policy violation, but with performance failure. Step 1 - Performance Redirection: This step is used when you have an initial performance failure. We call this type of failure an “episode”. This is the first time the person has failed to achieve this particular desired result and you want to get them back on track so you have a conversation to identify the failure, determine the reason the failure occurred and determine how that reason can be eliminated so that future success is ensured. In other words, you use the accountability process that we have been describing in our previous 2014 newsletters. This process should be used anytime you incur an episode, but what do you do when you have the same episode occur again on one or more occasions? Reoccurrence of a particular failure is what we call a “rerun”. It’s like watching the same TV show again. Our suggestion is that you begin by treating it the same way you did the first time to determine if the same cause is in play and why your “fix” didn’t work. If you find a different cause, then fix it, but if you find the same cause, then moving to Step 2 may be in order.

Step 2 - Corrective Counseling: There are really two objectives with Corrective Counseling; (1) to communicate the importance of improvement, and (2) to provide legal support if termination becomes necessary. This step is the same as performance redirection with one addition…“documentation”. Your organization most likely has a documentation form for you to complete to detail the conversations that you have had with this person about this continued failure, so complete it, sign it and get the employee to sign also. By the way, their signature simply indicates that they attended the meeting and received the information, not that they agree. As a matter of fact, they should be able to state in the document if they disagree. We are often asked what you should do if the employee refuses to sign the document? We suggest that you have a witness (someone at your level or higher, not a coworker of the employee) sign to indicate that the session occurred and that the employee refused to sign. Additionally, the employee should be advised that continued failure will result in Step 3. Finally, place the document in the employee’s permanent personnel file. Should the employees performance improve you can always document the improvement and put that in the file as demonstration of the improvement.

Step 3 - Corrective Action: This step is simply Corrective Counseling with one addition…some form of punitive action, e.g., time off without pay, demotion to a lower position, etc. In some organizations there is a predetermined progression of punitive action, so you should check with Human Resources to determine what that progression is. Obviously you will document, but it is also highly recommended (required in many companies) that you have a witness present when conducting a Corrective Action meeting. Again, the employee should be advised about the results of continued failure especially if Step 4 is next in the progression.

Step 4 - Employment Termination: Unlike the previous three steps, this step is not intended to motivate the individual but rather is the culmination of those previous attempts. The objective is not to “punish” the person but to communicate that their continued failure has left you with no other option but to give them the opportunity to go somewhere that they can be successful. Your organization will have specific procedures in place for this meeting and will most likely be a joint session with an HR representative and possibly your supervisor/manager. If you have followed the progressive discipline policy then this result should not be a surprise to the employee and additionally should provide the legal framework to protect the organization against a possible lawsuit.

Finding and developing successful employees is possibly the most important job of a supervisor. Progressive discipline is one of the tools that you have to help develop your employees. If you put most of your focus and effort on Step 1, you shouldn’t need Steps 2-4 very often.

What’s the Point?

Performance issues usually stem from multiple and varying factors. Rarely is motivation the only cause of poor performance. However, when motivation is the driving factor, progressive discipline can be used to affect the motivation of the employee through the use of negative consequences. The key is to always use progressive discipline in accordance with your company's policy and with guidance from your HR department. Remember the goal is to improve performance, not simply punish.