Progressive Discipline

How do I administer progressive discipline?

Progressive discipline was defined in Question 61 in Chapter 6. There are several basic rules that apply to administering progressive discipline. In essence, your company's progressive discipline system must provide all the elements of workplace due process. Specifically, you should follow these four rules when disciplining your employees:

Rule 1: The employee needs to know what the problem is.

Rule 2: The employee needs to know specifically what he needs to do in order to fix the problem. Rule 3: The employee needs to have a reasonable period of time in which to fix the problem. Rule 4: The employee needs to understand the consequences of inaction.

If your company has ever lost a wrongful termination charge, it may not have been because of the merits of your argument; it was probably lost because you failed to follow one of these rules.

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Let's look at these issues individually.

Rule one states that an employee needs to know what the problem is. That sounds fairly self-explanatory, but it's actually a very common miscommunication in the workplace. Employers assume that workers know what's wrong, only to learn later that the employee was confused by management's directives and actions. ''I didn't realize that my job was in trouble; everyone does that around here, and no one else has been fired because of it'' is a common response. Employers also hear rebuttals like, ''You didn't tell me that was a formal warning; I thought you were giving me a coaching session when you told me that I needed to increase my productivity on the shop floor.'' Therefore, you shouldn't assume that any performance-related issue is self-evident; your concerns should be explained clearly both verbally and in writing.

The second rule states that workers need to know how to fix the problem at hand. The best way to accomplish this is by adding an ''Expectations'' section to your verbal and written warnings. For example, you might write, ''John, I expect that you will arrive at your workstation by 8:00 a.m. and be ready to begin work at that time on a go-forward basis. That kind of directive is clear and incontestable in its intent. After all, a measurable standard must be known in advance for it to be enforceable and capable of withstanding legal scrutiny.

Rule three requests a reasonable time period. How much time is reasonable when it comes to giving your employees a chance to turn their problematic performance around? That depends on the nature of the work that your company is engaged in, the length of time the employee has been with you, and how you ve handled similar situations in the past. No one would expect you to allow an employee to run your business into the ground. Still, your warnings can t seem prescribed or mechanical. In other words, you typically wouldn't give someone a written warning for substandard job performance on Monday and then turn around and terminate the person on Tuesday. Under most circumstances, that wouldn't be reasonable. Your remaining employees would know that, and morale would sink. A jury would also find this unreasonable.

Rule four states that the consequences must be clear. Too many employers commit serious errors at this stage. Untrained supervisors allude to open-ended consequences in their verbal counseling sessions and written warnings. Warnings to be avoided sound like these:

- If you engage in such activity again, serious consequences will follow.

- I will have no choice but to take further action should you repeat such behavior.

- You must immediately increase the volume of outbound telemarketing calls. Otherwise, disciplinary action up to and including dismissal will occur.

The obvious weakness in these examples lies in their generic nature. What are ''serious consequences''? What kind of ''further action'' is at issue? How many outbound telemarketing calls are acceptable? How many are unacceptable?

To avoid such problems, be sure to ask yourself, Are these consequences clear enough that the employee could explain it back to you? Would a jury understand exactly what I meant? Once you feel comfortable with the specific consequences you've outlined, be sure to discuss this ''documented conclusion'' with the worker being disciplined. Does it appear to be fair and reasonable to her? Can she understand why you have to take these action steps as a responsible employer? Does she understand that your failing to take these steps could create a poor precedent in terms of your management practices? If so, you've done a thorough job outlining the consequences of inaction.

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