What is Progressive Discipline?

wiseGEEK Writer

Progressive discipline in business is a series of known graded or progressive steps that are taken if an employee commits an offense. For both business owners and employees, having a clearly defined policy of progressive discipline can help prevent misunderstandings about what will occur if an employee engages in an action defined as a misdeed. Such a system in place can constitute several steps ultimately escalating to measures like demotion or termination when employees continue to commit the same misdeed repeatedly. If a company has a progressive discipline policy, it’s useful to make this evident in things like an employee handbook, and these policies work especially well when employers adhere to them consistently.

Demotion to a lesser position may be part of a progressive discipline policy.
Demotion to a lesser position may be part of a progressive discipline policy.

Though each progressive discipline policy is constructed differently, they usually begin by giving an employee a verbal warning. Should this not be heeded a written warning could follow. Each time the offense is recommitted within a certain time period, such as a year or six month’s time, the employer moves up a step on the discipline ladder. After oral and verbal warnings, things like suspension, demotion, or termination tend to follow.

It is generally important to build in an expiration period on warnings because employees may work for companies for many years. If an employee is late one day and receives an oral warning, a second late day that occurs three years later probably isn’t worth a written warning, and might just be cause for another verbal warning. Many businesses design a progressive discipline plan where warnings eventually expire.

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While some believe these policies focus only on the negative, they certainly don’t have to. An oral warning about tardiness or failure to be appropriately dressed for work can be a conversation about the underlying issue that resulted in the infraction. If managers or supervisors take the time to find out if there is some good reason why the employee was late or improperly attired, they may be able to supportively help an employee with a problem and put the matter to rest for good.

In the best sense, progressive discipline can be employer intervention that results in a better relationship between workers and employers, but it can also be used punitively, which may not be the best choice. It’s also important that employers live by the rules they set. A manager who always arrives late is setting a poor example for employees whose jobs are on the line if they don’t get to work on time.

Some offenses are so severe they cannot be handled with a progressive discipline system. The company can still employ progressive warnings for minor infractions while adopting a zero tolerance policy on more serious employee behavior issues. Things like working while intoxicated, violence in the workplace, or sexual harassment could be strictly forbidden, where no second chance occurs for the employee who behaves in one of these ways.

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