Using progressive discipline fairly and effectively
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Using progressive discipline fairly and effectively

Most of us are familiar with the basics of progressive discipline – a graduated scale of verbal and written warnings, reprimands or suspensions that may lead to termination.

Progressive discipline is a good approach to follow for several reasons: It’s effective, it’s fair, and it’s defensible in court.

What progressive discipline does is put policy violators on notice, while giving them a chance to mend their ways. Often, employees do just that. And if it’s implemented properly, progressive discipline gives the employer a strong defense against discrimination claims that a disgruntled employee may make.

But a progressive discipline policy is only as good as its implementation. For managers tasked with doing just that, the key is to apply progressive discipline consistently.

Equal treatment
The strength of progressive discipline is that, in theory, everybody gets treated in a similar way. If Sally is issued a written warning for being late three times in a month, Sue should also get one, circumstances being equal. (Note: Circumstances aren’t always equal, as we’ll mention in a minute.)

If you make exceptions, you’re likely to stir up accusations of favoritism. This hurts morale and undermines the policy’s power to protect the company.

Musts to avoid
But you don’t want to let consistency turn into rigidity, which is #1 on the list of progressive discipline mistakes to avoid. Here’s that list:

  • Showing inflexibility. As we said, situations aren’t always identical, and when they’re not, discipline shouldn’t be, either. If an employee is legitimately confused about or unaware of a rule, for example, you may properly decide not to put him or her on the corresponding step of the progressive discipline ladder.
  • Sweeping problems under the rug. Few supervisors enjoy confronting employees. But in the progressive discipline framework, it’s a big mistake to let disciplinary or performance problems fester. If you don’t nip a problem in the bud with a warning, what will you do if the employee steps so far over the line that you have to fire him? It’ll be easier for the employee to paint your action as discrimination, and you won’t have the documentation to prove the contrary.
  • Gutting the policy with ill-advised remarks. Most progressive discipline policies leave managers wiggle room to not apply the policy in cases of really awful conduct (e.g., to fire someone immediately). That’s a good thing. Yet a manager can neutralize this advantage by previously promising, or seeming to promise, that employees would be disciplined in steps no matter what they did. Courts may see this as a binding commitment.

A final word: If you don’t understand a progressive discipline policy, it’s likely others won’t, either. Ask for clarification.

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