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Utilizing Progressive Discipline: Crafting a Culture of Continuous Improvement

In today’s dynamic workplace, it is crucial for employers to go beyond simply establishing clear and fair guidelines for managing employee performance issues, and to instead create a growth-minded culture of continuous improvement. Progressive discipline policies provide a structured approach to address specific needed areas of growth, ensuring that employers maintain a professional and positive work environment. This article guides employers and specifically, managers, on how to successfully implement progressive discipline to build a stronger workforce while avoiding unnecessary and potentially costly liabilities.

Successfully Implementing Progressive Discipline

Generally, employees are disciplined for two reasons:

  1. Poor performance, or lack of performance, in their jobs.
  2. Negative work habits, e.g., tardiness, absenteeism, noncompliance with an employer’s policies or procedures.

Progressive discipline policies typically consist of four key steps; however, managers may reserve the right, at their discretion, to skip any step(s), if appropriate for the particular situation being addressed.

Step 1 – Verbal Warning for a First Offense: As stated above, managers initiate the process by addressing performance or work habit-related issues through a candid documented conversation with an employee. During this step, managers should outline the reasons for the action, corrective measures to be taken by the employee, and the consequences should the employee not improve. A timeline for the employee to improve is also a necessary component.

Step 2 – Written Warning for a Second Offense: For more serious issues where a documented verbal warning would not be appropriate, or for issues that were not corrected by the employee under a documented verbal warning, a written warning is employed. Again, just like during the documented verbal warning, it outlines the reasons for the action, corrective measures to be taken by the employee, and the consequences should the employee not improve. In some cases, this may serve as the final warning before termination of employment by the employer. This may be the last chance time for the employee to either improve their poor performance, or correct a work-habit issue. The same form should be used as was used in the documented verbal warning.

Step 3 – Suspension or Written Warning for a Third Offense (Optional): When an employee needs to be removed from the workplace for an investigation to ensue, suspending the employee with pay, may be the better option to limit the employer’s liability. Suspension may be accomplished at either the documented verbal or written steps, or as a third offense in the written warning process. When suspending an employee, the management employee should use the same form as what was used under both the verbal and written warning steps to document the action in order to show consistency in the process. Managers need to be careful when suspending an employee for work-habit reasons, e.g., tardiness, or absenteeism. For example, an employer would not want to suspend an employee for absenteeism. Judges have ruled that in this case the employer was giving in to the employee’s wishes of time off, even if it is unpaid time off. Thus, what was the progressive disciplinary action? So, employers who are thinking about using suspension are wise to seek the counsel of an employment law attorney, or HR professional, before using suspension as a progressive disciplinary action, and specifically before making the decision to not pay the employee for the suspension time.

Step 4 – Termination of Employment: If the employee does not meet the expectations as outlined in either the verbal and written warning(s) and the issue persists then termination should occur. In some cases, consulting with an employment law attorney, or HR professional, to ensure the process is conducted fairly, consistently, and legally may be in order.

Implementing this structured approach offers employers the ability to address and document performance or work-habit issues effectively while allowing for flexibility in handling unique situations.

Avoiding Potential Issues

Progressive discipline is a valuable tool, but it comes with potential challenges and pitfalls. To ensure its success, employers must be aware of common issues:

Opportunity for Growth: All too often, many employers have the mindset that progressive discipline is a punishment instead of an opportunity for growth. Trying to maintain a positive working relationship may seem like a good idea, but not if the cost is allowing an ineffective work culture. At times, it may be uncomfortable for the employee and/or the employer, but applying progressive discipline when appropriate has the potential to lead to a growth-minded workplace culture.

Don’t Delay: Many employers wait too long to address issues. Addressing issues promptly, ideally within a few days, may make the interaction more impactful for the employee and helps to prevent potential legal challenges, since a delayed response may be perceived as condoning the behavior.

Timing Matters: Workplace violence continues to be a growing concern; however, Paul Falcone, an HR trainer, speaker, and executive coach, states, “Violent tendencies decrease in the face of information and open communication.” Therefore, it may be prudent to address issues earlier in the week and earlier in the day, which allows for more immediate access to answer any questions.

Documenting the Facts: Remember that progressive disciplinary documentation is legally discoverable and may be used against the employer, so avoid making statements that could be misinterpreted or incriminating. For example, instead of stating “The employee created a hostile working environment,” state, “The employee’s actions may suggest that a hostile working environment could have been created.” Always state the facts as they are without inadvertently leaping to a conclusion. Also, managers need to make sure they don’t use the names of other employees within the context of the document. They need to always refer to other employees in accordance with their job titles as stated within their job description.


Implementing a progressive discipline policy within every organization is essential for effectively managing an employee’s performance and work-habit issues. By following the structured approach outlined in this article, employers may improve an employee’s performance and work-habits by creating a culture of continuous improvement, making termination decisions more manageable, and limiting potential liability.

While it’s true that progressive discipline policies may be time-consuming and have potential downsides, the benefits they offer in terms of legal protection, transparency, and improved employee performance outweigh these concerns. By navigating the challenges of progressive discipline with care and consideration, employers may create a workplace where employees feel respected, empowered, and motivated to contribute positively to the organization’s success.

The focus on employers and managers should be on risk management, not risk avoidance. In the words of Dick Grote, author of Discipline Without Punishment, “Your job is very simple… to either help them become a good employee or an ex-employee.”

For additional information regarding talent development and employee management, including the progressive disciplinary action process, please contact us at NewFocusHR.com.

Updated by: Jason Love, SHRM-CP, CLSSGB

                       HR Consultant



  • “Progressive Discipline: Answers to More of Your Common Questions”, Paul Falcone, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 8/11/2017
  • “Is Progressive Discipline a Thing of the Past?”, Rebecca R. Hastings, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 1/19/2010
  • “A Warning About Warnings”, Jonathan A. Segal, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 2/1/2009




New Focus HR is a human resources consulting and training company that services all organizations. Our expert team collaborates with businesses to attract, motivate, retrain and retain their biggest assets, employees. While engaged with an organization, our focus is to find solutions that improve the company’s internal HR-related practices while increasing results at the same time! Our focus. Your results.