The value of a progressive discipline process
By Johanna Hildebrand, HR Consultant, HR @ Your Service
Progressive discipline, a key piece of performance management, is an inevitable and crucial responsibility for all managers and leaders, but it is a process many dread.
Progressive discipline can be a daunting task, but if we reframe the conversation and explore the importance this cycle plays in employee performance and organizational health, we can see the value that progressive discipline has in a leader’s toolkit.
Why Progressive Discipline?
A common misconception is that the purpose of progressive discipline is to justify a termination.
We frequently see leaders using progressive discipline as a pathway for termination, when the ultimate goal should be to have an employee with improved performance who is actively contributing to the success of their team and organization.
A secondary purpose of the progressive discipline cycle is documentation. HR professionals often promote the importance of documentation throughout the life cycle of an employee; progressive discipline is no different. Recording the process allows you to demonstrate that you have provided the employee with all the tools and support needed for their success within the organization. This helps you manage the risk to the organization and show the employee that you are invested in their success by outlining clear expectations for moving forward.
Do we really need a policy?
Ideally, your organization will have a progressive discipline policy in place, with the primary goal of supporting employee success and demonstrating how you will support their learning and growth.
A policy provides clear expectations for managers and staff, and ensures consistent application across your organization. Recognizing that employees are valued members of the team, a policy will outline your organization’s commitment to establishing a system and culture of coaching and feedback to encourage improvement and development.
Progressive discipline cycle
The progressive discipline cycle is about creating opportunities for improvement. At each step, a leader should identify the concern, clarify expectations, and communicate next steps or consequences.
Step 1: Coaching Conversation
Coaching conversations may be a formal part of the policy, or an informal first step. Managers should use a coaching conversation to identify the concern or learning opportunity early on. The issue may not be serious at this point but is important for the employee to learn from it.
Step 2: Warnings
Generally, a policy will outline a few levels of warnings. Common practice is a verbal warning, followed by a written warning, and possibly a final written warning. Progressive discipline will move to the warning step after multiple reminders (or coaching conversations) with the employee, or if
- the situation has escalated,
- there is no demonstrated improvement, or
- the incident is more serious.
Once at the warning stage, it is important that all documentation clearly defines the concern, the expectations for improvement, and the possible consequences if left unaddressed.
Step 3: Suspension
Sometimes incidents escalate or are so serious that a suspension may be issued, and the employee temporarily removed from the workplace. A suspension would be the result of the escalation of a serious incident or when an immediate consequence is needed for a serious situation.
Step 4: Termination (if necessary)
If you’ve exhausted all efforts to support improvement and the employee is still underperforming, termination is sometimes a necessary final step. If you come to this step, consider downloading our Best Practices for Notification Meetings Guide for tips and advice.
Where to start
When applying progressive discipline, you want to ensure that you have done your due diligence to address the root cause of the issue, whether that be lack of training, attitude, not following procedure, etc. Before applying discipline, gather all the information and establish the facts of the situation or incident.
Questions to consider
- Has the employee behaved similarly in the past?
- Are there any mitigating factors that may be affecting their performance?
- Has the employee shown any improvement since the last conversation?
- Were they set up for success? Were the expectations clear?
- Were other employees put at risk as a result of the situation?
- Was company property damaged?
Throughout this process, leaders must keep notes, capturing data and completing documentation. This may be formal (written warnings delivered to the employee) or a summary of notes the leader has taken to track the situation. The documentation will help you identify patterns of behaviour, keep employees accountable for their improvement and growth, and reduce risk and provide supporting evidence if decisions need to be made regarding the employee’s future employment with the organization.
Having the conversation
Follow-through and accountability are often the hardest part of the progressive discipline process. When conducting a discipline conversation, use a private space where you are unlikely to be interrupted. These conversations should be calm and straightforward. The intent is not to shame or accuse the employee. You want to make them aware of the concern and provide the opportunity for improvement. Be specific about what the concern is; you want to target the root cause. Engaging the employee in finding a solution can increase the likelihood of success.
Effective progressive discipline requires intentional work and effort, but the end result is worth it! Remember, the goal of a successful progressive discipline process is an employee with improved performance, who is actively contributing to the success of the team and organization.
At People First HR, we partner with organizations to create and maintain progressive discipline processes. This could include developing templates, creating policies and resources, supporting managers through the process, or talking through a performance situation with our HR OnCall service. Contact us to learn more about how we can support your organization!
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