Progressive Discipline Guidelines

Updated: January 08, 2010


  1. Verbal Warning
  2. First Written Warning
  3. Second Written/Probationary Warning
  4. Termination


  1. Tell the employee what they've done wrong and why - be specific, attach examples, state dates/times. Verify accuracy of details; credibility is critical. As a representative of your company, be aware that you are drafting a document that could potentially be viewed by attorneys, judges, the EEOC, etc.
  2. Explain why performance is detrimental to the company - explain the impact of their performance on the company.
  3. Tell employee what to do to correct the problem.
  4. Tell employee the consequences if they do not correct the problem.Establish a timeframe (usually 90-120 days).

Include wording at the end of the warning that "further incidents in these areas or any other violation of company policies will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination." Use the "Employee Warning Report" form.

Notify Human Resources prior to giving any warning.

On-going communication with the employee is extremely important. After an employee is placed on warning, their status should be discussed with them on a weekly basis. Document each discussion.

If additional "historical" information comes to light after the warning is given, this may be added as an addendum to the original warning, but normally would not trigger the next step in the warning process.

There are five main ways to overcome performance problems associated with a lack of ability. Consider using them in this sequence, which starts with the least intrusive:

  1. Resupply.
  2. Retrain.
  3. Refit.
  4. Reassign.
  5. Release.

1. Resupply - Focus on the resources provided to do the job. Do employees have what they need to perform well and meet expectations?

  • Ask them about additional resources they think they need.
  • Listen for points of frustration.
  • Note where employees report that support is inadequate.
  • Verify the claims with your own investigation. People will often blame external sources for their poor performance before admitting their own fault.

This is a highly effective first step in addressing performance. It signals to members of your team that you're interested in their perspective, and are willing to make the required changes.

2. Retrain - Provide additional training to team members. Explore with them whether they have the actual skills required to do what's expected. Given the pace of change of technology, it's easy for people's skills to become obsolete.

This option recognizes the need to retain employees and keep their skills current. There are various types of retraining you can provide:

  • Training seminars with in-house or external providers.
  • Computer-based training (CBT).
  • Simulation exercises.
  • Subsidized college or university courses.

Resupplying and retraining will often cure poor performance. People and organizations may get into ruts, and fail to recognize these issues until poor performance finally highlights them.

3. Refit - When these first two measures aren't sufficient, consider refitting the job to the person. Are there parts of the job that can be reassigned? Analyze the individual components of the work, and try out different combinations of tasks and abilities. This may involve rearranging the jobs of other people as well. Your goal is to retain the employee, meet operational needs, and provide meaningful and rewarding work to everyone involved.

4. Reassign - When revising or refitting the job doesn't turn the situation around, look at reassigning the poor performer. Typical job reassignments may decrease the demands of the role by reducing the need for the following:

  • Responsibility
  • Technical knowledge
  • Interpersonal skills

If you use this option, make sure the reassigned job is still challenging and stimulating. To ensure that this strategy is successful, never use demotion as a punishment tactic within your organization. Remember, the employee's performance is not intentionally poor - he or she simply lacked the skills for the position.

The first 4 steps are an effort to rehabilitate the individual. Once these are exhausted, the progressive discipline process may need to be initiated. Of course, it can be utilized simultaneously or after the above steps. This process leads to:

5. Release - As a final option for lack of ability, you may need to initiate the formal warning process and ultimately let the employee go. Sometimes there are no opportunities for reassignment, and refitting isn't appropriate for the organization. In these cases, the best solution for everyone involved is for the employee to find other work. In the long run, this may be the best decision for your whole team.

There are potential negative consequences of retaining a poor performer after you've exhausted all the options available:

  • You'll annoy other members of your team, who may have to work harder to "carry" the poor performer.
  • You may promote a belief in others that you're prepared to accept mediocrity - or, worse, underperformance.
  • You may waste precious time and resources that could be better used elsewhere.
  • You may signal that some employees deserve preferential treatment.
  • You may undermine the whole idea of finding the best person for the job.

Of course, there are issues other than performance problems that may have to be addressed (attendance, traits, teamwork, tardiness, attitude, etc.).


Performance = Ability x Motivation


  • Ability is the person's aptitude, as well as the training and resources supplied by the organization
  • Motivation is the product of desire and commitment

Someone with 100% motivation and 75% ability can often achieve above-average performance. But a worker with only 25% ability won't be able to achieve the type of performance you expect, regardless of his or her level of motivation.

In rare circumstances, if you have an employee, usually "exempt" in this scenario, who is "just not a fit," it may be effective to explain this to them and give them a time period, somewhere between 3 and 6 months to find another job. You will be the judge as to if the employee's demeanor and character will allow them to be receptive. This way, they have a smooth transition between jobs with not gaps in employment. Even in this circumstance it is still critically important to document performance problems and any discussions with the employee.

A Further Look at the Disciplinary Process

Haphazard discipline can lead to lower productivity, poor morale, and the potential for lawsuits. Employees who feel they have been treated unfairly often file claims.

Yet, inaction can be equally dangerous if employee behavior problems are consistently ignored. When managers do not actively address poor performance and misconduct, morale and productivity will suffer.

So, what steps can you take? The best solution is to take an aggressive, proactive approach using a combination of corrective counseling and progressive discipline. It should give employees specific feedback, plus action plans and timelines for improvement.

Normally, the best approach is to act as a coach/advisor. Give the employee "ownership" of the issue! Your role is to advise them of the issue and facilitate improvement. Stress you'll constructively discuss issues with them and you'll provide resources, training, etc. within reason. The ball is in the employee's court to address the issue and improve.

First Steps: Informal Counseling

The type of corrective action you should take in a given situation generally depends on four issues: (1) the nature and seriousness of the infraction, (2) whether it is a first time or repeat offense, (3) past handling of similar disciplinary problems, and (4) whether there are special circumstances impacting the level of needed response.

Unless an employee has engaged in a serious offense, the most appropriate initial response normally is to have an informal, yet specific, solutions-oriented coaching session with the employee. During this discussion you should:

  1. Remind the employee of pertinent quality, policy, or work rules issues;
  2. Provide concrete examples of how the employee's behavior or performance has fallen short of expectations;
  3. Explain the impact of the employee's deficiencies on the organization and coworkers; and
  4. Describe actions the employee needs to take to correct the problem.

In many instances, having one or two candid discussions is all you need to help a wayward employee get back on track. Be sure and make some notes about the date/time/issue discussed for EVERY session.

Follow-Up Steps: Progressive Discipline

When the informal coaching attempts fail, or when there is more serious misconduct, formal disciplinary action is necessary.

1. Verbal Warning
Here, you identify the problem, state your expectations, and explain the adverse consequences if uncorrected. This first disciplinary step is similar to the informal coaching session since it is intended to counsel the employee on improvement.

However, the employee should understand that he is now at risk for
additional disciplinary action if he does not improve. You should keep a confidential record of the session including date and time. It's fine to use a written document as an outline and give the employee a copy - the definition of "oral warning" is that nothing is placed in their personnel file at this point.

2. 1st Written Warning
If the employee's behavior does not improve or another incident occurs, a written warning should follow. As with oral notice, you again inform the employee of the performance expectations and required changes, but also give the employee formal written notice conveying the increased seriousness. A copy of the warning should be given to the employee and signed original forwarded to HR. The document should be reviewed with HR prior to use.

An accompanying document may be a "Performance Improvement Plan" (PIP). Performance goals and expectations may be included in the warning, or a separate document (the PIP) may be attached. If you use a PIP, make sure it entails these steps:

  • State performance to be improved; be specific and cite examples.
  • State the level of work performance expectation and that it must be performed on a consistent basis.
  • Identify and specify the support and resources you will provide to assist the employee.
  • Communicate your plan for providing feedback to the employee. Specify meeting times, with whom and how often. Specify the measurements and timeframes you will consider in evaluating progress.
  • Specify possible consequences if performance standards are not met.

A PIP can be valuable at this stage because it focuses on goals and improvement (rather than a merely punitive warning).

2nd Written Warning/Probation
Its purpose is to place the employee on final notice and force a commitment to improve, or face termination. Review with HR prior to implementation.

If all efforts fail and the employee's performance does not improve or misconduct continues, the final step is termination. (of course, in certain circumstances involving particularly egregious behavior, termination may be appropriate at any time during the process, including first course of action)

To ensure that discharge is the proper response, all decisions should be reviewed by at least one level of management above the immediate supervisor, and by the HR department. This review provides a system of checks and balances and should catch questionable decisions that warrant further legal review.

Decisive, Evenhanded Action Yields Results

Addressing employee misconduct or poor performance is often uncomfortable and virtually never easy. However, by putting the above recommendations into practice, you can promote efficiency and good morale while reducing the prospect of costly litigation.

A structured counseling and disciplinary system puts your employees on notice as to your expectations and gives them an opportunity to improve. And then, if they fail to respond, your implementation of progressive discipline delivers a reasonable, but firm message that unacceptable behavior or performance is not tolerated. A fair and predictable process builds employee support, remedies problems, and provides a strong defense, if needed.

It should also be noted that improved performance is expected to be immediate and sustained. The timeframe DOES NOT mean you have to wait until the end of the indicated period to initiate the next step. The timeframe used (e.g., "90 days") is a window during which further action/next step may be taken - this may be a week later, month later, etc. In fact, by initiating the warning process, you've obligated yourself to move to the next step at the next "triggering incident," if it occurs.

Best case scenario is to use the disciplinary process to help an employee get to an acceptable level of performance. Diary the last day of the warning period and 1) use the opportunity to tell the employee the warning has expired and reinforce their positive behavior, 2) e-mail HR that the warning period has been allowed to expire (this provides file documentation).

Golden Rules of employee terminations

Even though terminating an employee is an unpleasant and difficult task, you may need to take the action in order to restore productivity and morale and ensure the continued, effective functioning of your department. Follow the "golden rules" summarized below when you are facing a termination.

  • Respect the employee's privacy rights -- conduct the termination in a quiet area and minimize the potential embarrassment to the employee by making certain that others do not witness the termination conference. Only provide information about the termination to the staff members that have a "need to know."
  • Be honest about the reasons for the termination and communicate the discharge decision in a calm, business-like manner.
  • Give the employee "ownership" of the issue.
  • Strive for consistency in all employment-related actions, including terminations. Before terminating or imposing discipline, confirm that the organization has treated similarly situated employees consistently.
  • Document thoroughly the reasons for the termination and the use of any disciplinary processes leading up to the termination.
  • Except for terminations for "gross misconduct" always err on the side of giving an employee a chance to correct a performance-related problem.

One final option: Get Your Underperforming Employee to Quit

Note: these are techniques that can be incorporated into the "coaching" phase of bringing an employee up to speed


Counseling Out is the process of providing enough regular, candid and honest feedback that an employee quits before being fired. Most managers wait too long to fire underperforming employees. It's better for the employee, manager, and company if the employee quits. If Counseling Out is done correctly, your problem employee will find a job and quit before you have to take action. HR can sometimes play a role as the "intermediary" - providing a discussion with the employee of their resignation (frequently with severance) before they reach the point of being terminated.

Steps to Counseling Out

1. Establish a Counseling Out Timeline

This first step to Counseling Out an employee is to establish your timeline. Four weeks is usually sufficient. Because you want the right people on your team, do not extend this process for months. When you decide that you are going to start, put an appointment in your calendar as your deadline. If he/she does not quit by your deadline, fire the underperforming employee.

2. Start with Honest Feedback

It is usually easy to give positive feedback and bonuses, but difficult to freeze someone's pay or give a bad review. Although it is sometimes easier to ignore a problem and hope it goes away, that is the wrong approach. Failing to give reviews, being falsely positive or giving undeserved bonuses leads to your team's failure and sets you up for a potential lawsuit. If you choose to counsel out an employee, honest reviews are vital. Start with an employee meeting to give honest feedback. Prepare a list of the problems with examples to help communicate the message. (For example: John Doe does not follow instructions - On April 15, 2006, John Doe was asked to do X. He did Y.) Be clear that this meeting is not his/her time to defend himself/herself. This is your time to present all of the issues and let the employee know that the issues can not continue to exist. You may consider letting him/her schedule a meeting with you on the following day if the employee feels the need to explain or defend himself/herself. After you finish communicating your list, both you and your employee should sign and date the document of problems, indicating that it has been clearly communicated. If you believe there is a chance for improvement, you may choose to offer a performance improvement plan. Do not feel obligated to offer such a plan. There are some employees who are just not a good fit for a certain position. Finally, close this meeting with a clear statement like, "John, now may be a good time to start looking for another job." You should use situational judgment in making this statement - is the employee ready to/does he/she need to hear it?

3. Weekly Reviews

Schedule weekly meetings with your employee through the end of your Counseling Out timeline. Be careful to not share your timeline with the employee, in case you decide that an earlier than planned dismissal is needed. Use these weekly meetings to make sure that he/she is still providing at least a neutral contribution to your company, and to inquire about the employee's job hunt. If the underperforming employee's attitude or performance is getting worse, point it out and make sure he/she understands that he/she still has a job to do. It is okay to encourage the employee in the job search, to ask what job search tools he/she is using, and to ask if the employee has had any good leads or interviews. Remember to document any progress, the topics discussed at the weekly meeting, and to both sign a meeting summary before leaving the room.

There are usually two scenarios where counseling out can be used: 'Good Employee, Wrong Job' or 'Bad Employee, Really Trying'.


Any time an employee may need to be fired, you need to document all communication. Regardless of how hard you try to help your employee or be nice, there is still the risk of a wrongful termination lawsuit. To protect yourself from wrongful termination lawsuits, you should implement some basic Human Resources' best practices.

Initiating the Formal Warning Process

1. Schedule the meeting and set the stage.

Make clear what the meeting is about and what you want to discuss. Help the employee feel at ease from the outset. But don't get caught up in small talk. Emphasize that this meeting is important and you want it to be productive. Provide an overview of what you want to discuss. Make it clear you don't expect to do all the talking.

2. Describe the problem.

Focus on the employee's results and behavior in concrete, nonjudgmental terms. Cite specific examples and let the employee respond. Don't throw out vague criticisms without having specifics to back them up. Examples:

Too vague: "Your work has been sloppy lately."

Specific: "Your last three reports have contained an unacceptable number of statistical errors. Let me show you …"

3. Address problems separately.

If there is more than one problem to discuss, address them individually. Don't bring up new problems until you've thoroughly discussed the current one.

4. Reinforce performance standards.

Your employee already should know the standards you expect, so review them and then move on. If the employee challenges the validity of a standard, calmly state your reasons for requiring it, and gently steer the conversation back to the reasons the person didn't comply.

5. Develop a plan and timeline for improvement.

Your preparation for the meeting should have included a plan for helping the employee improve. During the meeting, the employee may suggest additional solutions. Agree on a method for improving performance in the short run, and establish some options in case the first method proves ineffective.

6. Offer your help.

Show your commitment by offering to help your employee obtain any necessary training, resources or other assistance to achieve the performance goals. Ask the employee what he or she needs to reach the goal.

7. Inject positive comments if possible.

However, don't be inaccurate just for the sake of being kind. If a poor-performing employee must eventually be terminated, a manager's false praise could cause the employee to question the "real" reasoning for the termination. And that could spark a discrimination lawsuit.

7. Emphasize potential.

Make sure to tell the employee that you believe in his or her ability to improve performance.

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