Nobody likes the idea of disciplining an employee. For management, it can be stressful to have hard conversations. Employees who are reprimanded may worry their job is at stake. But when done right, employee discipline can be a growth opportunity that can help you retain talent.

What is Employee Discipline?

Employee discipline refers to the steps a company takes to correct worker misconduct or poor performance. When workers fail to meet expectations, discipline is intended to make them aware of the issue and encourage them to make changes. Employee discipline may be used in a few situations.

Poor behavior

You may wish to consider reprimanding an employee if their actions disrupt others in the workplace or create an unpleasant working environment. Dishonesty, insubordination, or a violation of company policies are other examples of poor behavior that may require disciplinary action.

Employee misconduct

If an employee’s behavior breaches company rules—or even the law—this is considered misconduct. Employee misconduct can include damage to company property, acting against a company’s interests, or illegal activity. It can also include abusive or harassing words and actions.

Poor performance 

You may need to consider disciplinary measures if an employee refuses work assignments, is repeatedly absent without cause, or doesn’t work when on the clock. Reprimanding an employee for poor performance may help them to overcome challenges that are impacting their productivity.  

When to discipline a worker

Ultimately, it is up to companies to decide when—and if—they discipline employees. The decision usually rests on two factors.

  • The company culture. Some companies are more formal and rule-driven. In these companies, even minor infractions may lead to employees being written up. For example, some businesses may have policies in place to dock a worker’s pay if they’re late. Other companies are more relaxed.
  • The seriousness of the offense. Some behavior—such as harassment and aggression—can make a workplace unsafe for employees and leave the business vulnerable to lawsuits. Many companies will use disciplinary action in these situations.

Different Disciplinary Methods

Discipline can take many forms, depending on the company and the infraction. It can involve a formal write-up, an employee improvement plan, a negative employee performance review, a demotion, a verbal reprimand, suspension without pay, or a combination of these actions. If discipline does not work and bad behavior continues, termination can be the next step.

What is progressive discipline?

Progressive discipline is one of the most common forms of employee discipline used today. Moving away from the more traditional idea that discipline is punishment, progressive discipline tries to help an employee to change and improve. It’s all about working together to solve the problem. This is achieved through a few steps, which can be customized for the needs of your company.

1. Investigation

Your HR team should gather information about an employee’s alleged misconduct or poor performance. This may mean reviewing performance reports, speaking with managers and supervisors, and examining work orders and other paperwork. The goal is to get the facts and make sure discipline is the right action.

2. Verbal warning

At this stage, a manager, supervisor, or HR professional should ensure your worker is aware of your employee handbook and the expectations it outlines. They will explain to the employee how and when these requirements were not met. The two can then discuss ways to improve behavior. The employee should leave with a clear plan of action and an understanding that if things don’t change further action will be taken. A written record should be kept of when this conversation took place and what was discussed.

3. First written warning

If a new problem occurs with the same employee—or if the poor behavior continues—your company can issue a written warning next. This warning should outline the violation and what the consequences are for failing to improve. A copy of this written document should be kept and the employee should attend a second meeting to discuss and sign the warning.

4. Final written warning

If poor behavior continues, you can issue a final warning. The final warning should have the same information as the previous warning and include details about the alleged wrongdoing. 

In many organizations, a final warning comes immediately before a suspension. However, suspension—with or without pay—can occur at the same time as the final written warning.

If you have suspended an employee, continue to investigate misconduct or other problems. If it turns out that there weren’t any ongoing issues, the employee can be reinstated and compensated with back pay—where necessary. 

If an investigation confirms a problem, your organization must decide what to do next. Before firing an employee, some companies decide to demote them or change their roles—ideally to a position where they are more likely to succeed. 

Some companies try mediation. An organization may put in this extra effort if an employee has a history of excellent work, they have specific skills, or if there is another reason why termination could hurt the company.

If your business is considering suspending an employee, consult with HR and check state rules. Some states and municipalities allow suspension without pay and some require suspension with pay.

5. Termination

If nothing else works, an employee may be terminated. This is a difficult step for everyone, so it’s important to get approval for this decision from HR or even the CEO.  It’s also important to document this step with a formal letter, explaining the termination and outlining who has approved the decision.

What is Positive Discipline?

Also known as affirmative discipline, this form of employee discipline involves sharing positive feedback about an employee’s performance along with corrective action. For example, a manager may point out that an employee is always on time for work and may express appreciation for that. At the same time, they may point out that the worker is not completing their required paperwork.

The idea is that by combining positive feedback with requests for improvement, managers can motivate workers to change. They can also preserve their good working relationship with the employee.

How Can Employee Discipline be Positive for Your Company?

It is possible. In some cases, employee discipline can make things better.

  • It gives workers a chance to improve. In June 2022 alone, there were 1.3 million discharges and layoffs across the country. Discipline may help businesses to avoid this measure. Warnings and disciplinary action can help employees change their performance and give them the opportunity for growth.
  • It can boost performance. If workers are not being productive, discipline can get them back on track. This can mean better performance for your teams.
  • The right discipline process can protect your organization. Terminating an employee can lead to resentment and legal claims. A disciplinary process can be a defense, showing you took all reasonable steps and gave a worker a chance to improve. This is especially important since termination claims most often cost companies between $5,001 and $20,000—and 7% of plaintiffs reported winning over $100,000 in such claims.

What Are Some Best Practices for Employee Discipline?

Creating a plan for dealing with misbehavior gives managers and everyone at your company clear steps for what to do if disciplinary action is required. It also helps employees understand what the consequences are for not following the rules. As you create your plan, you may want to adopt these best practices.

  • Start with the right mindset. At every stage of the process, how can you support your team? How can you help the employee succeed at work? Your goal is to work together for the best outcome possible.
  • Temper your emotions. When harassment, dishonesty, or other problems happen, emotions can run high. Despite this, focus on facts and speak to employees calmly when discussing discipline. After your conversation about discipline, continue to be pleasant and professional with your employee. Your worker is more likely to stay and improve if they see it’s not personal and the discipline will not negatively impact your working relationship. 
  • Make sure the rules are clear. Ideally, your company should have workplace rules and expectations written down. Providing new hires with this information during a thorough onboarding process is also important. You can use Connecteam to keep your employee handbook, company policies, and all relevant information in one place for easy access.
  • Speak to legal counsel. Most employment in the United States is at-will—meaning a company can terminate a worker for poor performance, insubordination, and many other reasons. If you have unionized employees, union agreements may have specific requirements for disciplinary action. An attorney can make sure you’re compliant with any state or local rules and ensure you’re not opening yourself up to a wrongful termination lawsuit. 
  • Listen. Your employees may have their reasons for certain behaviors. There may be exceptional circumstances that contributed to improper conduct. Or there may be issues with workplace training that should be considered. Understanding why a situation doesn’t rule out the need to discipline an employee. But it may indicate where further investigation or additional support is necessary.
  • Document carefully. Keep copies of any communication between you and the employee. Also, keep any evidence of wrongdoing. For example, if an employee is being disciplined for being late to work, keep copies of late clock-ins. If a worker challenges a disciplinary action or termination this documentation can show you had just cause for the action.
  • Be consistent and fair. While you might want to consider an employee’s circumstances and past performance when deciding on disciplinary measures, aim to be impartial. Discipline should come from what the employee does, not from their relationship with leadership or management.  

Making Employee Discipline a Success

Sometimes, employees may not behave as we’d expect. When their actions could harm the organization or others, discipline can help correct the problem. You can use progressive discipline, positive discipline, or your own system to shape employee behavior. With the right mindset and approach, you might be able to keep valuable talent, avoid lawsuits, and even improve performance.  


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