An employee discipline program is in place to handle situations in which an employee violates company rules or policies. Rather than as punishment, employee discipline should be viewed as an opportunity to foster, build, and enhance individual performance to improve overall company productivity and culture. Implementing a disciplinary policy also helps to prevent poor performance or undesirable employee behavior in the first place.
Dealing with employee disciplinary issues can be a challenge, so let’s pare it all down to six must-know tips for preventing misconduct and enforcing discipline in your business.
1. Communicate Your Disciplinary Policy
Your company’s disciplinary policy should be clearly communicated, widely published, and readily available. The more information provided, the less room for misinterpretation and error. Your policy should be communicated in your employee handbook.
An employee handbook includes everything your employees could possibly need or want to know about company policies. Most businesses hold employee orientations or require signed acknowledgment of company expectations from employees early on.
Common policy rules and expectations fall into a few general categories:
- Day-to-Day. Day-to-day company policy may outline attendance, tardiness, time off policy, phone policy, dress code, and available resources for employees.
- Employee Conduct. The employee code of conduct may include a breakdown of company expectations for employee productivity and work ethic; acceptable and unacceptable treatment and behavior toward customers, peers, and superiors; and company policy on unethical or illegal behaviors and actions and poor performance.
- This section can then expand to review company policies on employee performance expectations, job description, performance evaluations or employee reviews, and disciplinary action.
- One Strike or Inviolable Rules. For some companies and industries, safety of employees is paramount. It is mostly at these kinds of companies where there is one strike, or “inviolable rules,” which, when broken, result in immediate termination. This might include an egregious violation of safety protocol that endangers or harms company employees.
Employee expectations, rules, and disciplinary policy should also be consistently reinforced. Annual evaluations and reviews provide a great opportunity for this.
2. Decide What Constitutes a Policy Violation
Everything from something as general as “abusive behavior” to an extensive list of what exactly the company deems “abusive behavior” is fair game for what constitutes a violation of company policy. In addition to whatever is specifically outlined in the employee handbook, here are some examples of employee misconduct that likely require corrective or disciplinary action:
- Abuse of customers
- Abusive language toward colleagues or supervisor
- Causing unsafe working conditions
- Damage to machinery, equipment, or other company property
- Defamation of employer or colleagues
- Violation of contractual agreement (Noncompete or Nondisclosure, or Conflict of Interest)
- Falsification of documentation
- Obscene or immoral conduct
- Possession or use of illegal substances
- Refusal to accept assignment or overtime assignment
- Sleeping on the job
- Threats, threatening language, or profane language directed at colleagues or management
One of the legal obligations of employee discipline is that it is consistent across employees without discrimination, exception, or favoritism. Whatever you decide constitutes a policy violation must be uniformly applicable to all employees. While it may be tempting to vary disciplinary action among job descriptions and departments, it’s a legal can of worms.
3. Offer Progressive Discipline & Due Process
Hopefully, yours is a company culture that fosters employee sentiment of feeling heard, valued, and respected. There’s no better place to demonstrate this than in the disciplinary process. A modern disciplinary model is that of Progressive Discipline. This simply means employees are given due process, scaled disciplinary action, and consequences that fit the offense. The Progressive Discipline model typically follows a four-step process (with slight variation depending on company culture and industry): verbal warning, written warning, suspension, and termination.
A verbal warning with an employee is so much more than that. In all fairness, the employee should be given a verbal warning from their direct supervisor, with facts and specific examples to support that warning and ample opportunity to explain the event in question. A verbal warning should also:
- Focus on collaborative correction and fostering employee improvement via one-to-one counseling, training, or retraining.
- Explain the impact of the poor behavior or performance to the employee—why was this action or behavior a problem?
- Create an avenue for conversation and solution-oriented dialogue.
- Result in a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), which, depending on the severity of the infraction, offers the employee the opportunity to demonstrably correct or improve their behavior within a given timeframe (usually 30 days).
The written warning represents escalation, neglect, or repetition of the problem, or an employee’s inability to adhere to their PIP within the given time frame. Sometimes, a written warning will warn of an impending suspension if the behavior or problem is not curbed. A written warning will generally include the following points:
- Reference Points, including employee name, date of the warning, and how many written warnings the employee has received.
- Reason for Warning
- Corrective Action(s) Required
- Time Frame for Correction
- Acknowledgement, via a document dated and signed by the employee and issuing supervisor.
Also sometimes called probation, a suspension can be with or without pay, depending on the severity or type of infraction, the employee’s status and pay rate at the company, and the company’s at-will employment policy. Further, a suspension may be imposed during an investigation when necessary, called a “suspension pending investigation.” The necessity of an investigation will depend on a number of factors, including the company and industry category, the type or severity of the employee misconduct, what you’ve documented in your employment contract upon hiring that individual, and any union laws that apply to your company or industry according to the National Labor Relations Act, among others.
Under some circumstances, when all else fails, it is the unfortunate obligation of businesses to terminate employees. As outlined in our how to terminate an employee guide, this process should involve:
- Thorough documentation of the disciplinary process and why the ultimate solution is termination
- A termination letter
- Gathering of supporting documentation
- Notifying the employee
- Cutting the final paycheck
4. Investigate Thoroughly
Conducting a fair investigation is essential to arriving at the appropriate course of action in a case of employee misconduct. Employees are entitled to due process. In the occasion that you have to conduct an employee misconduct investigation, be sure to abide by the following general guidelines:
- Keep investigation records, ensuring they are secure and confidential
- Where applicable, abide by union collective bargaining agreements
- Do your homework and know the law (and maybe hire a lawyer)
5. Document Everything
You may notice a consistent thread through all of these tips on the disciplinary process, and that’s documentation. Documentation is the lifeblood of a compliant, legal, and fair disciplinary process. Sufficient recordkeeping can help businesses protect themselves and defend against an OSHA citation or penalty, a lawsuit levied by an employee, or charges brought by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), among others.
Adequate documentation of an employee’s disciplinary record may include:
- Employee personnel file
- Documentation of poor employee performance or misconduct
- Complaint form(s)
- Witness reports
- Record of meetings with employee in issue
- Discipline or termination reports
- Record of employee redress, including mediation or arbitration
- Written materials relevant to investigation
6. Do a Self-Check
Nobody’s perfect and even practiced human resources professionals make mistakes every now and then. A great self-check on your disciplinary process with an employee is to ask yourself at each stage of discipline:
- Did I clearly define what was expected?
- Was the employee aware of disciplinary rules/inviolable rules?
- Did I perform the necessary training/retraining?
- Would others be held to the same standard?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, it would appear the discipline is appropriate. It’s rarely pleasant but can be fruitful when executed properly.
Following these tips will help any employer establish a specific, fair, and public policy that employees can easily abide by. When employee discipline is necessary, there is a due process that makes the procedure easier and more objective for all parties involved. The ultimate goal of employee discipline is to keep and foster good employees with good intentions, ensure employee health and safety, avoid terminations, and enhance company productivity and personnel harmony.
According to Don Phin in his LinkedIn Learning course titled Hiring, Managing, and Separating from Employees, poor employee performance is often due to a mis-hire, poor instruction, poor tools, or other factors outside the employee’s control (including mismanagement). Follow the above guide to set your employees up for success and minimize the need for disciplinary action.