Progressive Discipline

I am working on updating our progressive discipline policy. I am a little bit confused about the difference between a warning and a verbal warning. Can anyone help me out? How do you handle each? Some articles I've read say there are four steps to progressive discipline 1. verbal warning 2. written warning 3. suspension 4. termination. and others say there are five steps with a warning being the fist step. Any info would be appreciated.


  • 21 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • No matter how many steps you use in your culture, it is important to add language that managers can skip steps. Unless you are a union shop and obligated to follow rigid progressive discipline, I would never tie our hands so that we couldn't suspend or fire someone right away in the right circumstances.

    I wouldn't scrap verbal warnings. I realize many ees think it is odd to see documentation of a verbal warning - but it really does serve a purpose. We don't always use a formal form to document that. Sometimes it is as informal as an email to document "the discussion" we had on x date. If the situation escalates to a written warning, we then can reference back to the date of the verbal warning easily.

  • I recently attended a conference of Disciplinary Action that was conducted by and arbitrator and a management attorney. Both stated that the 1, 2, 3, 4 steps that you outlined are appropriate. In fact, they said that the verbal warning does not necessarily need to be documented (as in "in writing"), but they acknowledged that many, if not most, companies do document verbal warnings.

    By the way, should it be "verbal" or "oral" warning. These guys used the term "oral" because all warings are "verbal" because both the spoken and written words are "verbal." Webster says: Of, relating to, or associated with words. Of course, the #3 definition is: Expressed or transmitted in speech.

    I know, too much time on my hands, but could spur an interesting debate or discussion, whichever you prefer.
  • If you use the term Counseling for step one, it eliminates the need for the language debate ;)
  • Therer is no set levels for progressive disciline and various emplyers call the same levels different things, and some don't have suspnison without pay or suspensions with pay (if you consider that disciline), but everyone claims that they have a progressive discipline policy.

    Starting with some concepts...

    Progressive discipline is supposed to be a positive management approach to address, correct or stop misconduct or poor performance at levels before they become serious and perhaps incorrigible. That doesn't mean that every misconduct or incident of poor performance has to go through progressive discipline. Usually, those acts that go to the suitability for emplyment with the emplyer, or impugn the integrity or trusworthiness of the employee probably can be viewed as requiring immedate termination or perhaps the last formal disciplinary step in the emplyer's "arsenal" short of discharge. Another area where non-progressive discipline can be imposed would be in those incidents of misconduct that the employee reasonably knows or should reasonably should have known is wrong -- I don't think that an employer should have to go through progressive discipline if it catches the employee stealing money from the cash register or attempting to murder his or her supervisor (sometimes this area involves clearly morally or socially unacceptable msconduct) even if it doens't have an explicit policy barring them.

    Remember, the intent of progressive discipline is to put the employee on notice, in an effective but not excessive about a problem so that it is corrected or not done again; of course, many times, initial steps of progressive discipline fail or the process of progressive disciplne fails with the emplyee forcing the employer to impose discharge.

    Generally, in the entire range of the progressive discipline progress both verbal and written approaches are acceptable (except where there may be aribtration on the propriety of a discipline).

    Counseling while not a formal disciplinary step is often viewed as part of progressive discipline because it is usually in response to some issue, problem or wrongdoing with the intent of correction or stoppng the problem before it gets worse. But I have seen some arbitrations look at the counseling level as a disciplinary step. I would be interesting to know what an arbitrator would rule under "Weingarten" if the employee upon demanding union repesentation at a meeting was told by the supervisor, "I need to look into this and if you did it, I'm just going to counsel verbally you but you can't have a representative because it's not discipline."

    From my experience, the first formal disciplinary measure is warning for most employers. Who is responsible for issuing that may vary, but it is usually the immediate supervisor.

    I think that disciplinary steps should be in writing, so I'm not in favor that there be something called "verbal warning." But it's not fatal if you have something like that -- the problem is somewhere along the line, in order to establish that a verbal warning was given, it has to be put in writing, so then it becomes a written warning.

    Some employers go with a second or third warning before discharge as thier steps in the process.

    I've always felt that as you move up the level of the progressive disciplinary steps, not only the degree of discipline should change but also the level at which it is being issued. It makes no sense for a second or third or "final" warning to have ben issued by the same supervisor, especially if we know the first warning didn't take hold. The higher level demonstrate to the employee that management is taking a more serious look at him or her and that discharge is in fact a real possiblility -- it's not just something the supervisor is yakking about (it is blatant support for the supervisor over the employee).

    In our system, the next step after warning is called the "reprimand." That's issued by the immediate manager (above sueprvisor) and is placed in the official employee file where it is kept up to two years.

    After that many employers -- and we do too -- have a suspension without pay; some may even have a suspension with pay. Suspension may vary in length. It is usually the last disicplinary step before discharge.

    A new "trial" or "orientation" period may be used by some employers as part of a progressive disciplnary program; indicating that the emplyee needs to prove him or herself within a specified time limit otherwise "its pack your bags."

    Demotion to a lower level may be part of an employer's progressive discilinary scheem, but most likely it isn't. Usually demotion invovles performance, while progressive idsicpline is most convenienct to be imposed with misconduct. If an emplyee volates poikcies or acts inappropriately in one job, there's nothing to belief that he or she won't continue that misconduct in the lwer level.

    Finally that leaves discharge as capital punishment in the workforce.

    I agree that it is important to indicate that any step may be repeated or skipped as the particular circumstances warrant for that emplyee at that particular time.

  • Hatchetman, that was above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks!!!! Some very good points to think about.
  • Several years ago, the trend was to write specific discipline policies (step 1, 2, 3, 4). Then a few years ago, it seems the trend was to not write specific discipline policies because if you didn't follow them to the tee, you were "screwed". I see on the website that the proposed discipline policy is specific and your responses here are specific.
    Does this mean we are back to writing specific discipline policies using the steps, but leaving enough wiggle room that managers can skip steps and, of course, the language about certain things require immediate terminatin? What about naming examples of what constitutes conduct requiring immediate termination? I thought that we didn't give non-inclusive lists because the employees argued they thought the list was inclusive since there were examples. But I see in the sample policies that a non-inclusive list is used. Do we list some examples?
  • In response to HCA, you can read the responses and see that there are as many different opinions about the proper way of writing these policies as there are HR people and attorneys. You pick the method that will fit your organization the best and go for it.
  • Perfect, Gillian. You are slowly becoming Americanized. It is true that the number of written discipline policies is directly proportionate to the number of people existing at any given time who have the ability to write. Ours is a bit 'odder' than some posted. We have three steps: counseling, verbal warning and written warning. We have condensed three documentation forms into one so that now, all three events are required to be reduced to writing on the same form, the third in a certain period of time resulting in termination. It would be better to have a 3-strike policy with all being relatively equal in value. But, to hamstring ourselves with such procedures that absolutely paralyze us and in effect preclude a termination, is not what we ought to be about searching for. Maybe the California mindset is best after all....the one that says simply that "there are no problem employees".
  • For the new participants, the full sentence to which Don refers is - there are no problem employees, just employees with problems. It's too late in the day to start that debate again. Actually, I have been Americanized for a long time and have a naturalization certificate to prove it.
  • I have used (and drafted for my clients) a "corrective action" policy that lets managers skip any, and all, steps with the oversight of HR. I sell this to the managers as protecting them from being sued for discrimination and/or harassment if they need to accelerate the process. I explain that the manager and HR is then able to tell the EEOC and/or the courts that the decision was reviewed by someone outside the department and found valid so the manager could not discriminate or harass the employee by writing him/her up. The managers appreciate the freedom to run their department with HR (their partner) watching their backs. It also gives HR the ability to intervene and discuss acceleration with the manager before the corrective action is issued. If the managers follow the steps, they do not need HR oversight.

    I also have a "Record of Conference" Form that requires the managers to reduce meetings about employee performance to writing, even the verbal ones. I tell managers that if they want to have an informal talk about correcting performance, I'm fine with that so long as everybody gets the one informal talk before the manager starts issuing corrective action.

    I'll be glad to send you the policy and the form if you want it. Just e-mail me and I'll send it by return e-mail.

    Margaret Morford
  • For God's sakes beware a discipline policy written by a consultant or recent Harvard graduate.
  • HR folks (and supervisors) who think that Progressive Discipline means a rigid formula are considering only ONE aspect of the concept. Progressive Discipline is all about individuality. You make a judgement on a case by case basis, taking into account the offense, the employee's record and all of the mitigating and extenuating facts of the event. It is never as simple as a stimulus - response scenario.
  • Our policy for excessive attendance or tardiness is verbal warning, written warning, probation, termination. I have seen the problem of the employee clearing the probation period w/o another absence or tardy, and then 2 weeks later there is another one. Any ideas on cleaning that up? Tks, Barbara
  • The way to clean it up is to craft your policy so that you are not bound by such things as "After probation, the employee's prior disciplinary issues will not be used in the process if a period of 2 months has passed". Those types of restrictions on the employer (who is actually restricting them by including them) are what causes employees to figure out ways to beat the system. Our policy, for example, carefully states that: "The Company will not utilize a previous notice of warning if the employee does not receive any additional notices of warning duting the subsequent 12 month period." This is a quote out of our union contract which was strategically put forth by the company. It might appear that all writeups roll off after the passage of 12 months. But, in effect one never rolls off unless there is the passage of a complete 12 month period following the last disciplinary issue. You should word your policies to allow yourself (the company) maximum flexibility in their administration, not paint yourself into too many corners and always leave yourself a backdoor in the event others are doing the painting.
  • Our company just got into PIP (performance improvement plan). Idea is to give the employee every chance to correct their "problem", instead of a "slap on the hand" kind of verbal/written warning.

    A great book that we use examples from is called:

    '101 sample write-ups for documenting employee performance problems.'
    It's by Paul Falcone

    I've found employees are more responsive to making a change in behavior vs being written up for every infraction with no measurable goals to improve other than, 'just do it'. Also doesn't hurt if an employee decides to file a wrongful termination can show how you made every effort to help the employee improve. Of course, you need the manager's buy-in to this idea so they will actually give the employees a chance!
  • I also use that same book "101 sample write-ups for documenting employee performance problems" and I LOVE it.

    We do have a progressive discipline procedure consisting of 1= oral warning, 2= written warning, 3= 2nd written and 4= termination. However, it is very rare that we want to terminate someone, so we have also started the "personal improvement plan". It cost too much money to terminate ee's then rehire and train new hires when we can focus on more mentoring or training for our existing ee's.

    We want to give our ee's every possible chance to improve and see there mistakes. We suggest an improvement plan and we give them an opportunity to present their own improvement plan.
  • [font size="1" color="#FF0000"]LAST EDITED ON 02-05-03 AT 07:53AM (CST)[/font][p]The personal improvement plan sounds interesting, and I have a few questions that I would like to present regarding its use:
    1) What indicators are there to determine the need for an improvement plan?
    2) Do you (a) utilize it at some point in the midst of the progression discipline process, i.e., after the second step is administered, or, (b) do you use it before going the progressive discipline route?
    3) If the answer to question #2 is (b), what triggers the decision to administer disciplinay action?
    4) What involvement do employees have in developing the improvement plan?
  • Mike: I certainly don't want to offend; but, all this detail and paralyzing structure is exactly what a disciplinary process should NOT be, in my humble opinion. I worked in a prior environment where the PIP process was detailed in a sixteen page booklet, front and back, 10 point font. The HR department spent many, many unproductive hours attempting to institute and manage it and training managers to understand and implement while all the while they were just learning to despise H.R. Good luck. Don D.
  • Our PIP is included with our progressive discipline procedures. We start it as soon as we see there may be a problem arising.

    We also do the PIP to help determine if the errors or problems that the ee is making is due to lack of training.

    We have not incorporated long drawn out procedures on PIP.

    We have tried the 1, 2, 3 steps and then terminate, however we were frequently having to term even when we felt the ee was just not comprehending some aspect of their job.

    I think the role we have taken in the steps to improve our ee's performance is a positive one, however it may work for some and may not work for others.

    The ee has total involvement in their own improvement plan. Their improvement plan doesn't have to be elaborate, just as long as they are showing some type of interest in improving their work and work habits is motivation enough for my supervisors to act and go above and beyond to help make that ee be the best ee they can be and do the best job they can.

    On the other hand, some ee's don't give a CARE. Those ee's will show no interest in making a PIP, in that case you still proceed with your progressive discipline.
  • T
    Thank you for your detailed response. You answered my questions perfectly. It is a very interesting concept that I may consider for our company.

    As far as offending, it does not surprise me that you would consider my questions too detailed. I see this forum as a learning process, and what better ways to learn than to ask questions when you see something of interest. I read this forum a lot, but only respond when I have something to add that others have not already stated. I do not ask many questions because I consider myself to be a senior HR professional, but the process presented by T truely did interest me.

    I'll go back to my cave now and watch you rack up the number of responses to just about every post.

  • Our managers have "incident reports" for each employee. They record the good stuff as well as times they have counseling sessions with employees. After several non-productive counseling sessions, they call in HR. A written oral warning is documented and signed by the employee. It goes into their personnel file for one year. If there are no other incidences, it will be removed then. However if there is no improvement, we follow with a written warning and then probation. A repeat of the same problem that caused the probation and we free up their future.

    We are very clear that each case will be handled individually and that the policy does not have to be followed in every instance. We have the right to elimate one or more steps and can terminate on the first offence.

    Yesterday I was advised that one employee has had 12 manager counseling sessions in the last year for the same policy violation. Looks like this manager needs a refresher on counsling???
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