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When employees are not meeting performance standards or failing to correct problems, progressive discipline is an essential tool for managers. Typically, this starts with informal discussion and verbal warnings, then escalates to written warnings, formal reviews, and finally termination.

Taking these steps helps establish the seriousness of the problem while still providing employees with a way to resolve the issues and improve performance or behavior.

In this article, we explain what progressive discipline is, provide a detailed example of how progressive discipline may be administrative, and discuss benefits and best practices.

What Is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive discipline is a management strategy to use gradual steps when employees fail to correct problems after a reasonable amount of time. 

The goal of progressive discipline is to use the least severe action to correct employee behavior. If the condition is not corrected, then increasing levels of discipline are imposed.

Example of Progressive Discipline

Some organizations may have policies on how management carries out progressive discipline. Other companies may not have policies in place.

So, while steps may vary, here is an example of how the discipline might progress.

Step 1: Informal Discussion

Managers or supervisors have informal meetings or discussions to point out problems and let employees know they need to correct the situation.

Step 2: Written Notices

If employees do not correct the problem within a reasonable amount of time or repeat situations, managers or supervisors would provide a written notice to the employee that documents the situation. Information should include the specific issue at hand, dates and times of occurrence and any factual details, and the steps that need to be taken to resolve it.

You want to provide enough information so that you can adequately recall things in case of a future legal dispute.

Some companies ask employees to sign written notices to document that they have received and acknowledge them. Others use the first written notice as a warning and then wait to request signatures in a subsequent phase.

Step 3: Formal Evaluation and Further Documentation 

When employees continue to demonstrate inappropriate behavior or performance after informal discussions and formal written notices, a more in-depth conference is convened to escalate the discipline.

Such meetings typically include careful preparation, including:

  • Reviewing previous discussions and documentation
  • Reviewing employee records
  • Reviewing company policies and procedures

In these meetings, managers and supervisors need to make sure employees know the gravity of the situation and what happens next if they fail to take corrective action.

These meetings often result in a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that details:

  • Objectives that must be met
  • A defined period for meeting objectives
  • Any interim steps that need to occur
  • Review periods
  • Consequences of failing to make required corrections

Step 4: Suspension

The next step in progressive discipline is often suspension. Depending on your company’s policies, this may include a day off with pay to give employees time to think seriously about whether they will change their behavior. It may also include a suspension without pay.

This should also include written documentation, citing the multiple steps already taken, and the next step if situations are not resolved.

Best practices would be to discuss the situation with the employee in person, provide them with a written notice of suspension, and then schedule a follow-up for the day they return to work to find out what they are doing to fix the situation.

Suspension often includes a final warning that failure to immediately make the changes requested will result in termination.

Step 5: Termination

After moving through all of these steps, if an employee still fails to change their behavior or improve their performance, termination may be the final step.

All documentation should be compiled and, per company policy, placed in employee files for future reference.

What Are the Benefits of Progressive Discipline for Businesses?

Progressive discipline provides several key benefits for businesses. The biggest benefit is, hopefully, correcting performance or behavior at the early stages. Other benefits include:

Creates a Discipline Structure

A progressive discipline system provides a structure to an organization’s performance management. It provides a logical step-by-step process to help employees improve their performance and a clear understanding of what happens if they fail to do so.

Easy to Follow

Progressive discipline steps are easy to follow and provide a roadmap for managers and supervisors. It acts as a guide for managers and supervisors to determine the appropriate response to offenses and prevents them from taking severe action without first trying other methods to resolve issues. After all, the goal is to fix performance and not punish employees.

Promotes Fairness

When progressive discipline is applied consistently, it helps establish fairness in the workplace. Employees know the steps that will be taken, what is expected of them, and the consequence if they fail to take the required actions.

May Help with Liability

If an employee is terminated, demonstrating progressive discipline may help reduce liability in case of a legal dispute or complaint by the employee by showing the steps you took to help employees correct the problem and their inability or unwillingness to do so.

By documenting each step of the process, you have a record of your attempts to resolve issues without having to rely on your memory. 

Best Practices for Progressive Discipline

Progressive discipline is not about punishing employees, but modifying behavior or performance that does not meet standards. Progressive discipline is designed to get an employee’s attention and provide them with multiple opportunities to fix a problem.

As levels of discipline increase, employees need to understand the consequences of failing to correct their actions.

Best practices for the management of a progressive discipline strategy include a series of steps.


Before administrating discipline, managers and supervisors should first investigate the situation to understand what happened and any mitigating circumstances. This should include a discussion with the employee to hear their explanation.

The progressive discipline process typically starts with a discussion or request to resolve the situation before documentation or discipline is imposed. If the situation isn’t immediately corrected, then progressive discipline goes to the next level.


If an organization faces criticism or legal action as a result of discipline, HR teams want to demonstrate that progressive discipline strategies were put in place with documentation throughout. That begins with the initial investigation and documentation.

Managers should keep notes of each conversation and each step in the progressive discipline process to demonstrate the repeated attempts to resolve problems. 

Documentation at each step of the progressive discipline process should also include information about each of the prior steps, including dates, times, and actions. This helps to progressively show the attempts you made to resolve the issue and the employee’s continued inability to do so.


Progressive discipline should also include a discussion at each stage to ensure employees thoroughly understand the concern, why it must be addressed, the timeliness of their action, and the consequences of failing to resolve the concern.

The goal is to resolve the problem and correct behavior, so you want to engage in an interactive process with the employee to uncover any potential stumbling blocks to resolution or suggest strategies for fixing the problem.


As progressive discipline begins, it’s a good idea to explain how the process works. Employees need to understand how their performance will be reviewed and what happens if they fail to make the necessary changes.

Managers and supervisors should be compassionate, but they should also be clear and firm in administrating progressive discipline. 


Feedback is an important tool for managers and employees. If you tell someone to change something and they fail to do so, you cannot let it slip. Formal appraisals to check behavior against company goals are an essential tool but do not discount the impact of providing regular and immediate feedback.

Without consistent feedback, employees may believe they’ve resolved the issue or that you are no longer worried about it.


Managers and supervisors must be consistent in how they administrate any discipline process. You must treat all employees fairly and deliver a consistent message about resolving issues.

Companies also want to be consistent in how they apply discipline. For example, minor offenses should be treated differently than serious offenses. For more serious offenses, you may feel more comfortable skipping steps to impose more serious consequences. In some cases, the offense may result directly in termination.

Get Expert Advice

While these general guidelines can help with establishing a progressive discipline process at your company, they should not be considered legal advice. You should also check with your legal counsel or consult with industry experts to make sure your discipline policies are compliant and optimized to protect you.

Resourcing Edge is an industry leader in human capital management solutions. With decades of experience managing employee administration, the HR experts at Resourcing Edge can help with all of our payroll, benefits, compliance, technology, HR, and recruiting needs. Simplify your HR management and focus on growing your business.

Contact Resourcing Edge today to discuss your needs or get a quote for professional services.


Jami Beckwith

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