Progressive discipline is simple in theory but often complicated in practice. Here are three key points for supervisors to keep in mind:

1. Attack problems right away
Few supervisors enjoy confronting employees, and you may be tempted to ignore problems. But in the progressive discipline framework, you must nip problems in the bud with a warning. If you don’t, what will you do when someone steps so far over the line that you have to fire him? It’ll be easier for him to paint your action as discrimination, and you won’t have documentation to the contrary.

2. Be sensibly flexible
Progressive discipline treats everyone in a similar way, staving off accusations of bias. If Sally gets a warning for being late three times, Sue should also get one – circumstances being equal. But they aren’t always equal, and that’s where a supervisor can be too rigid. Imagine, for example, that a worker breaks a rule but you learn he was confused about what it meant. You may want not to put him on the corresponding step of the discipline ladder. But document why you didn’t.

3. Watch what you say
You may be convinced that a given employee is on her way out, and progressive discipline is only a formality. Don’t say so. If you seem to prejudge the situation before going through the necessary steps, it’ll look like you’re railroading the person – and you may be giving her an opening for a lawsuit.

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