Use Disciplinary Actions Effectively and Legally

Want to Know How to Apply Progressive Discipline at Work?

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No one wants to hear that their performance is less than expected. After counseling and coaching from a manager yield no improvement, however, written disciplinary action must begin—to protect the company's interests—and to protect the interests of the employee.

Employees are uncomfortable with a disciplinary action such as an employee reprimand. They are sad and uncomfortable when their manager tells them that their performance warrants a verbal warning, the final step before the written disciplinary action begins.

Managers wonder why employees don’t just improve their performance as the severity of the disciplinary action progresses. An effective, communicative disciplinary action process should keep the employee informed and accountable every step of the way.

Many managers dislike the disciplinary portion of their job more than anything else. In fact, in studies, managers rank firing an employee at the top of the list of actions in which they most hate to play a part. Managers would rather spend their time on activities such as setting goals, reviewing progress, and eliminating problems employees experience as they strive to complete their work.

Purpose and Progress in Disciplinary Actions

From a company perspective, an employee reprimand demonstrates that the company was working with the employee to help him or her improve. At the same time, the company documented its increasing unhappiness with the employee's performance and the fact that the increasing unhappiness was shared with the employee.

The written employee reprimand shows that the employee was also informed of the performance problems and their consequence if they remained uncorrected. It is why employers ask employees to sign a document indicating that they have read and understood the document's contents.

Following the letter of reprimand, depending on the company’s disciplinary action policies, additional steps can include subsequent letters of reprimand with accompanying penalties such as days off from work with no pay.

If the supervisor has faith that the employee can improve his or her performance, at any time during the disciplinary action proceedings, and preferably before the first letter of reprimand, the supervisor can introduce a performance improvement plan (PIP).

The PIP is a more formal, detailed document with goals, expectations, and timelines, the supervisor’s opportunity to communicate clear job and performance expectations to the non-performing employee. When an employee is on a PIP, the employee generally meets with the manager, and often with HR staff, every week or two weeks to note progress toward improving performance.

Disciplinary action, such as an employee reprimand, can be a win-win if the employee heeds the message. If the employee does not, the company and the manager have effectively protected their interests—and the interests of employees who are performing satisfactorily.

The goal is to prevent a negative impact on performing employees whose morale is affected by the employee who is not doing his or her job. In fact, nothing has a bigger impact on performing employees than having to work alongside an employee who is not performing. This is especially true if they see that this employee is eligible for the same raises and perks they receive.

Issues to Consider in Employee Disciplinary Actions

As a communication tool with employees, an employee reprimand must be fair. Employers need to make certain that they are using the tool appropriately and that certain conditions exist for their effective and successful use.

  • Employee job descriptions must exist that spell out the required area of performance for which the employee is receiving the reprimand. If the problem performance is occurring in a non-essential job function, this needs consideration—or a rewritten job description.
  • The employee reprimand must be congruent with the disciplinary action process described in the employee handbook. Well-written employee handbooks suggest potential disciplinary actions but allow the employer latitude depending upon the circumstances of the employee's actions or performance.
    No disciplinary actions should be promised or deemed essential. A list of required disciplinary actions hobbles the employer's ability to remove an employee who is not performing. They may make lawyers happy but they cause unnecessary pain for the non-performing employee, his or her coworkers, and the organization.
  • Company past practices, in similar situations with other employees, must be consistent with the current employee reprimand. Inconsistency is potential grounds for charges of discrimination if employees in a protected group are over-represented in disciplinary action cases. If you discover this is so, relook at your hiring practices, policies, and any other employment practice that may be a red flag for discriminatory treatment.
  • The degree or type of disciplinary action taken fits the employee performance issues. An attorney once asked why a client company provided increasing amounts of time off from work for employees who had attendance problems. The question did cause me to rethink the practice, but in fairness to employers, options are limited when employee violation of rules and policies is the issue.
    What’s important, beyond consistency in similar situations, is to strive to make the disciplinary action “fit the crime.” For example, a company car was removed from an employee’s use for a period of time because the employee had charged the company’s EZPass tag for a personal trip, thus charging the company for her personal tolls.
    In a second example, an employee was removed from two company committees on which he enjoyed serving because his tardiness and absenteeism affected his regular workday. In a third, an employee lost the upfront use of the company credit card because his expenditures violated the company code of conduct.

An employee reprimand, used appropriately as part of a series of disciplinary actions, can help an employee improve his or her performance and rejoin the ranks of performing employees.