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HR Matters E-Tips
This Week's Tip: Employee Discipline (Part 2 of 2)
Published by Personnel Policy Service, Inc.
"Your Policy and Compliance Experts Since 1972"

This Week's Tip: Employee Discipline (Part 2 of 2)

Most managers dread disciplining employees and worry about making
mistakes that will prompt employee legal action. You can relieve some
of this unavoidable stress by establishing clear expectations for
employee behavior and by training supervisors to take fair, consistent
corrective action.
This Week's Tip: Employee Discipline (Part 2 of 2)

As last week's E-Tips showed, disciplinary action can be legally
hazardous if not implemented properly. Employees who feel they have
been treated unfairly often file claims ranging from discrimination and
retaliation to contract violation. (In case you missed that article, click
here for a copy:

Yet, inaction can be equally dangerous if employee behavior problems
are consistently ignored. When your 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. This approach should require supervisors to
confront employee performance and misconduct problems and to
document the proceedings. Further, it should give employees specific
feedback, plus action plans and timelines for improvement.

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 or repeated 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 policies and work rules;

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

In many instances, having one or two candid discussions is all you need
to help a wayward employee get back on track.

Follow-Up Steps: Progressive Discipline

When the informal coaching attempts fail, or when there is more serious
misconduct, formal disciplinary action is necessary. Most organizations
follow a "progressive discipline" policy where employees incur
increasingly severe consequences for repeated infractions or for the
continued failure to remedy deficiencies. Typically, the normal
progression in this type of a system is a formal verbal warning, one or
two written warnings, suspension, and, finally, termination.

1. Oral warning and counseling. 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 and put a copy in the employee's
personnel file.

2. Written warning. If the employee's behavior does not improve, 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 also be placed in the
employee's personnel file.

3. Suspension. The next step is a suspension, often referred to as
a "decision-making leave." Its purpose is to place the employee on final
notice and force a commitment to improve, or face termination.
(Remember that as discussed in last week's E-Tips, exempt employees
typically should be placed on paid leave, if they have worked any part of
the workweek involved.)

4. Termination. 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 bad behavior,
termination may be appropriate as the only disciplinary step.)

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 manager. This review provides a system of
checks and balances and should catch questionable decisions that
warrant further legal review.
Four More Steps to Effective Discipline

Once you have decided to implement a progressive disciplinary system,
you also have to support it with your policies and procedures. To this
end, you should:

1. Develop sound written policies. It is safest to have a written
discipline policy that provides clear guidelines and, at the same time,
reserves your right to exercise discretion in the actual handling of
unacceptable behavior or performance. Some employers resist
developing a written discipline policy on the grounds that they want to
maintain desired flexibility. This approach can easily lead to arbitrary,
inconsistent, and even discriminatory treatment of employees.

2. Implement disciplinary procedures fairly and carefully. Make it
clear to your workforce that the goal of your discipline system is
correction of problem behaviors and not punishment for the sake of
punishment. Employees are more likely to accept discipline when
counseling and disciplinary procedures emphasize employee
improvement and when warnings are given before more severe
discipline is imposed. At every phase of corrective action, the employee
should be given the opportunity to respond and give feedback.

3. Train supervisors in their roles and responsibilities. Supervisors
are management's frontline contact and play a pivotal role in dealing with
conduct and performance issues. You should support this role by
providing proper training to spot and handle problem behaviors and by
lending expertise, guidance, and support when formal disciplinary action
is necessary. In addition, supervisors should be carefully trained about
the vital relationship between proper discipline and employment law

4. Require and maintain accurate documentation. Proper
documentation of employee problems and related corrective actions is
essential to support and validate your disciplinary process. First, it
provides an accurate accounting of the steps taken to help the employee
improve and can be used to evaluate the employee. Second, it provides
a critical line of defense if you have to justify your actions or defend a

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.

Subscribers to the Personnel Policy Manual and HR Policy Answers on
CD can find more information on discipline in Disciplinary Procedure,
Chapter 808, and Behavior of Employees, Chapter 801.

If you don't have the manual, but would like to order a trial review, go to:

Or just give us a call toll-free at 1-800-437-3735.
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Your Editors at HR Matters E-Tips have set up a special resource center where you can download HR policies and other helpful materials on such topics as:

- Behavior of Employees
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Information provided in HR Matters E-Tips is researched and reviewed
by the HR experts at Personnel Policy Service as well as employment
law attorneys. However, it is not intended as legal advice. Readers are
encouraged to seek appropriate legal or other professional advice.

Interested in using an article from HR Matters E-Tips on your Web site or
in a newsletter?

Please contact Robin Thomas, Managing Editor of Personnel Policy
Service, Inc., to request permission. You can contact her by email at or by telephone at 1-800-437-3735.

Please note that the information in every issue of HR Matters E-Tips is
the original, copyrighted work of Personnel Policy Service, Inc., and is
protected under U.S. copyright laws. As such, you may not reprint or
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Tips without the express permission of Personnel Policy Service, Inc.

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