Matthew Scherer

If you repeat unacceptable behavior at your workplace, what happens?

You’ll most likely receive something like a verbal warning at first, but then the punishments become increasingly more serious as the behavior continues.

Should you continue to misbehave (such as harassing others or violating company policies), it won’t take long until you get fired (usually after a final written warning).

While this may seem like common sense, what I just described is progressive discipline, and it’s integral for a healthy workplace.

After all, nobody wants to see inappropriate employee behavior go unpunished; otherwise, the workplace would be a literal madhouse.

Progressive discipline also applies to an employee’s work performance.

If an employee continues to underperform after a less-than-stellar performance review, it’s normal for progressive discipline steps to enter the picture.

In other words, the progressive discipline process is what establishes and maintains order and performance standards for organizations. Without it, employee actions will have no consequences, and behavior and performance issues are sure to follow.

If your organization struggles with retention rates, behavioral issues, poor communication, or performance problems – a lack of a progressive discipline policy may be the culprit.

Today, we’ll dive into what progressive discipline is, its benefits, and how you can implement the disciplinary process at your organization – so stay tuned to learn more.

What is Progressive Discipline? A Definition

Progressive discipline is an escalating corrective action process designed to improve performance and behavioral issues.

It involves a series of disciplinary actions that increase in severity until the unacceptable behavior stops.

Remember when you received a mark (or a few) on the board for interrupting class in school? If you continued to disrupt class, you’d eventually land yourself in detention.

That’s a progressive discipline policy in action, and as a concept, it’s not exclusive to the workforce. Progressive discipline is also used in:

  • Universities and other educational institutions

  • Healthcare facilities

  • Internet forums and social media groups

  • Businesses for patrons (not allowing repeated offensive behavior before getting banned)

  • Recreational groups

  • Sports teams

As you can see, progressive discipline pops up all over the place in everyday life. Essentially, it’s used wherever there are escalating consequences for unaccepted behaviors.

Why is Progressive Discipline Necessary?

As stated before, progressive discipline maintains order in organizations, clubs, businesses, and society as a whole.

There must be consequences for inappropriate behaviors; otherwise, we’d live in a state of pure anarchy.

Conceptually, progressive discipline is especially sound because it benefits both involved parties.

It’s a mutually beneficial concept because:

  1. It protects individuals from excessively harsh punishments over minor issues (or initial offenses).

  2. It protects organizations from undesired behaviors that disrupt their mission and daily operations.

If an employee gets terminated over missing a single meeting, that would be considered an unfairly harsh punishment. Yet, if they receive a verbal warning for their first offense (with the understanding that a written warning will follow), that’s a much more acceptable consequence.

The employee didn’t get away with their undesirable behavior, and they know that the consequences will intensify if they don’t change their ways.

This greatly increases the chances that the employee will work on their punctuality to avoid future punishments, which is what progressive discipline is all about.

Poor performance will destroy your productivity, so you need a way to discourage things like:

  • Tardiness

  • Presenteeism (being present at work but not getting anything done)

  • Absenteeism (excessive employee absences)

  • Low productivity levels

  • Insubordination

  • Inappropriate language and behavior

  • Harassment

  • Bullying

Behavioral issues are always bad news because they can land your organization in legal trouble. The last thing you need is a public lawsuit that ruins your reputation, so you must focus on employee discipline to prevent undesired behaviors.

Benefits of the Progressive Discipline Process

Now that you know what progressive discipline is, what will it do for your organization?

Here’s a look at the top benefits of implementing a progressive discipline policy.

It Stops Problematic Behavior from Escalating

If you want to change an employee’s conduct (for example, if they’re excessively loud or inappropriate), their actions need to have serious consequences.

Things like tardiness, bullying, and harassment won’t cease unless your employees know they’ll receive harsh punishments if they don’t stop.

At the same time, it’s crucial for employee discipline to progress instead of being immediately harsh.

That’s the value of verbal and written warnings, as they give employees a fair chance to change their behavior before serious consequences occur.

If you immediately fire every employee who utters the occasional bad word, you’ll gain a negative reputation as an unfair organization, which will backfire.

Conversely, if youre too passive and never discipline your staff, they’ll see no reason to change their behavior – and your problems will continue.

Both scenarios are disastrous for your employer reputation, so you can expect to see your retention levels to dwindle.

Yet, with a proper progressive discipline policy, you can stop problematic behavior in its tracks without any negative impact on your reputation.

Your punishments will increase in severity, giving your employees plenty of warning before termination. At the same time, more serious consequences, like termination of employment, will act as a deterrent to stop undesired behaviors.

It Boosts Employee Retention Rates

Are you having a hard time holding onto your new hires? Does it always seem like you’re recruiting for open positions?

If so, your retention rates clearly need some work, and a progressive discipline policy can help with that.

For instance, poor employee performance may be at the root of your retention woes. If your employees aren’t performing well, they could be disengaged, distracted, or dealing with something negative like bullying.

None of these things bode well for your organization, which is why so many employees are heading out the door.

With progressive discipline, your employees must meet certain performance standards or disciplinary actions of increasing severity will be taken. Should a particular employee fail to improve their performance after several warnings, more severe consequences, like termination, are in line.

This helps keep your workforce productive and behaving well, which is what you want for better employee retention.

A progressive discipline policy will build trust among your employees, which evidence shows can boost their motivation to work by 260%.

90% of employers currently struggle with excessive resignations, retaining new hires, or both – so finding ways to boost retention is extremely important.

Progressive discipline also helps employee relations, as harassment or bullying won’t be tolerated without escalating consequences for repeated infractions.

That’ll ensure your workforce remains cordial and professional, another core component of high employee retention.

It Provides Room for Improvement

A progressive discipline system gives offending employees numerous chances to improve their behavior before making the termination decision.

This grants your people the chance to redeem themselves and cease undesired behaviors.

In the case of an employee’s poor performance, you can set them up with a performance improvement plan. Should they fail to adhere to the plan, you can escalate the consequences – including removing certain privileges and eventually terminating the employee.

Most employees don’t want to lose their jobs, so they’ll try and adhere to your action plan to improve.

Allowing room for improvement is the purpose of progressive discipline since firing employees for their first offense is too harsh. Not only is it unfair to the employee, but it also harms your organization.

How is that?

It’s because you’ll have to fill the position with someone brand new, whereas you could have given your previous employee a few chances to improve.

It Improves Workplace Communication

Did you know that nearly 70% of your workplace would be more productive with better communication?

Strong communication is a necessity for all departments, from human resources to sales and beyond.

If your organization lets employees go on their first offense and with no explanation/action plan for improvement, your communication will be in terrible shape.

In fact, 88% of employees blame company failures on poor communication, and they’re not wrong.

The good news is that a progressive discipline policy will significantly improve workplace communication.

By implementing escalating consequences like written notices and removing privileges, you’ll communicate to your employees what’s necessary to improve. It’s also wise to engage in follow-up sessions with offending employees to monitor their progress towards improvement.

An Overview of Common Progressive Discipline Steps

Progressive discipline policies typically involve a few steps containing increasingly severe consequences for repeated offensive behavior/poor performance.

The process tends to look like this:

  • Step 1: Administer a verbal warning that lets the employee know their behavior is unacceptable. Make it clear that should the behavior continue, escalating consequences will follow.

  • Step 2: Deliver a written warning that goes on the employee’s permanent record, so to speak. This warning is more urgent than the verbal warning and is often the final step before consequences like termination and suspension.

  • Step 3: At this point, the employee has received two warnings to stop their behavior. If they repeat the offense 3 times, more severe punishment is the best course of action, such as termination, privilege removal, or suspension.

It’s crucial to handle each step properly, so let’s take a closer look.

Step 1: Verbal Warnings

Whenever an employee acts inappropriately or begins to underperform, you should give them a verbal warning.

This is where their immediate manager or supervisor sits down with the employee to verbally reprimand them for their behavior. It needs to be made clear that their behavior will not be tolerated should it continue, and the manager should explain what the next steps are if they don’t stop.

Despite the fact this warning is purely verbal, you should still document it in the employee’s personnel file.

Why is that?

It’s because you must document all disciplinary actions to protect your organization from legal issues, and that includes verbal warnings.

Should you terminate an employee who goes on to file a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), you’ll need all the proper paperwork in place to prove that you acted in good conscience.

If you have all disciplinary actions recorded, it’ll be far easier to prove that you had a valid reason to let the employee go (such as refusing to change their behavior after repeated warnings).

Step 2: Written Warnings

The next step most organizations take is to deliver a written warning after the verbal warning falls on deaf ears.

This is also the stage where you provide performance improvement plans (PIPs for short) if they’re necessary (you won’t need them if you’re punishing inappropriate behavior instead of diminishing performance.

You should deliver this warning in writing to the employee for their personal records (and to serve as a reminder of their need to improve).

At the same time, don’t forget to include a copy of the written warning in the employee’s personnel file to protect your organization from litigation.

If you do administer a PIP, include a realistic timeline for their success, such as taking 60 days to achieve the desired performance levels. This provides the employee with a tangible goal, making the process seem feasible (instead of immediately becoming intimidated and quitting).

Step 3: Final Course of Action

Lastly, you should move forward with your final course of action after the employee fails to adhere to the written warning (and doesn’t follow the PIP).

It’s up to you what you designate your final course of action to be, but the most common punishments include:

  • Termination of employment

  • Temporary suspension without pay

  • Removal or suspension of employee privileges (like hybrid schedules, company credit cards, complimentary meals, etc.)

  • Demotion to a role with fewer responsibilities (and lower pay)

Whatever you choose, it should be significant enough to deter undesired behaviors. If your final course of action is only to slap an employee on the wrist with a mandatory training module – don’t expect their bad behavior to improve.

That’s why the final step should be something severe like termination, demotion, or suspension. That’ll light enough of a fire under your staff to keep them productive and well-behaved.

At the same time, the employee will have ignored numerous warnings at this point, which will protect you if they file a lawsuit. As long as you’ve properly documented all disciplinary actions, you’ll be able to prove that the employee ignored all warnings before you ultimately terminated them.

Wrapping Up: What is Progressive Discipline?

To summarize, progressive discipline is a corrective action system involving escalating consequences for undesired behaviors and employee performance.

It’s the best way to maintain order at your organization while ensuring your punishments aren’t unfair or too harsh.

It also gives your employees plenty of time to improve their conduct to avoid termination, boosting crucial HR metrics like retention, engagement, and productivity.

If your staff has been acting up or ignoring their responsibilities, enacting a progressive discipline policy may be the remedy you’ve been searching for – so don’t wait to try it out.